5 Minute History Lesson, Episode 3: Robbers Cave


Between 1949 and 1954 two social
psychologists Muzafer Sherif and Carolyn Wood Sherif collaborated with
graduate students to hold a series of experiments to test one of Dr. Sherif’s
ideas, known as realistic conflict theory. This having to do with inner group
conflict, stereotypes and prejudices. The most famous and significant of his
experiments took place in 1954 at Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma.
Sherif’s main idea was that conflict arises between groups when they’re
competing for limited resources. this hypothesis had important
implications as the Second World War had recently ended. The experiments involved
22 children between the ages of 11 and 12 none of them knew each other
previously and all came from similar backgrounds: middle class, white and
Protestant. The experiment had three stages. The first being a bonding stage.
Before the two groups were made aware of each other they were encouraged to bond
and create social norms by engaging in activities such as swimming and hiking
Here the group’s took names, the Eagles and the Rattlers, and developed their own
cultures and cultural norms. The next stage was the competition stage, lasting
four to six days in this stage there was to be friction between the groups and as
such a series of competitions were arranged. These competitions included
baseball, tug-of-war and touch football among others. The winners would receive a
trophy, medals and pocket knives there was no alternative prize for the losers.
The Rattlers who had developed a norm of toughness and aggression became
emphatically confident in their success. They put rattlers flags on the baseball
field and made threats about bothering them. The researchers then manipulated
situations where one group would gain at the cost of the other.
What started as verbal aggression between the groups soon escalated
further. After one of the baseball games the Eagles burned the Rattlers flag
next day the Rattlers raided the Eagles cabin, flipping beds and stealing
personal items. Soon fistfights would break out and the researchers had to
physically separate the children. After the end of the conflict period, where it
was announced that the Eagles were the winners,
there was a reducing friction period. The groups were asked to characterize the
other group and it was found that there were profoundly negative
characterizations, while holding their own group in high esteem. During this time the two groups were
brought together to engage in non-competitive activities. Sherif
believed that simple contact between the groups would not reduce friction. Instead
there would need to be common superordinate goals to accomplish. In one
event the boys were to watch a movie together, but had to chip in money of
their own. They worked together to decide the splitting of the money. They also had
to work to fix an issue with a water tank and the water supply at camp, which
the researchers had arranged. Likewise, one of the trucks delivering
food became stuck and had to be pulled out by the children working together. At this point the kids had come together,
no longer as enemies but as allies with a common goal.
Muzafer Sherif and Carolyn Sherif had successfully demonstrated realistic
conflict theory. Normal boys became their own cultures and showed that conflict
for limited resources can lead to prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory
behaviors. While simple coexistence did not eliminate these prejudices, working
together toward something better for both groups did.

Comments 17

  • This is a really useful summary of the study.  Thanks

  • This really helped a lot to understand the experiment.

  • Do you have captioning available for this video?

  • stage 3 didn't actually eliminate prejudicial behavior, it reduced it.. unfortunately

  • thanks for creating this

  • what is sad is that this video is not even 5 minutes.

  • Thanks for keeping it short as well!

  • So freaking interesting

  • The kids chanting in the background for the first 2 minutes was annoying af.

  • What a load of BS! It has been proven that the test results were rigged to confirm Sharif's theory and that the initial first experiment which is not mentioned here took place the previous year with a different group of boys. It not only disproved Sharifs theory but clearly demonstrated the boys natural inclination towards fairness and cooperation. Angered by the result he went on to construct another experiment a year later where the methods used and the rules applied were clearly designed to achieve the results he needed to support his premise and theory. Like scientists prodding rats in a maze for a desired outcome, rather than just observing the rats for a pure result.Someone needs to make a documentary about this appalling episode in human psychological experimentation.

  • basically lord of the flies

  • Gina Perry's book THE LOST BOYS (2018) searches the Muzafer Sherif files and interviews the boys, who did not know the camp was an experiment. Perry shows that the psychologists got the hoped for results by manipulating the groups of boys, which is unethical and brings in question the whole enterprise. Sherif only released the 1954 Robbers Cave experiment results to public, the one before that in 1953 was not a success, because the boys "refused to fight". So Sherif made sure the next project went according to plan, because he had already spent most of the funds received for the experiments.

  • Working together for something better for both groups dissipates prejudice. A conclusion worth considering.

  • I was learning this in class

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