Psychologist Muzafer Sherif suggested that conflict between groups was the result of competition for limited resources. To put this theory to the test, he conducted a series of experiments that are today referred to as the Robbers Cave Experiment.
In this article, learn more about what happened in the Robbers Cave Experiment and the conclusions that Sherif made about what these findings meant with regards to intergroup conflicts. Also, explore some of the criticisms of the study and the impact the research had on the field of social psychology.
An Overview of the Robbers Cave Experiment
During the summer of 1954, 22 boys between the ages of 11 and 12 arrived at a 200 acre camp at the Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma for what they believed was just a normal summer camp. What they didn’t know is that they were really about to take part in what would become one of the best-known psychological experiments, known today as the Robbers Cave Experiment.
Group Formation and Bonding Phase of the Experiment
The boys, all from similar backgrounds, were randomly assigned to one of two different groups. During the first week of the experiment, the two groups were kept separate and neither had any inkling that the other group even existed.
The boys in each group spent this time bonding with one another by participating in activities like hiking and swimming. As the researchers predicted, each group established its own norms, hierarchy, and practices. They also selected names for their groups (the Rattlers and the Eagles) and had their names emblazoned on their shirts and camp flags.
What Muzafer Sherif and his colleagues were interested in was looking at how intergroup conflicts were influenced by factors such as competition, prejudice, and stereotypes.
The Competition Phase of the Robbers Cave Experiment
In phase two of the experiment, the two groups were made aware of each other’s existence and placed in direct competition with one another in a series of activities that included such things as swimming, baseball, and tug-of-war. The groups engaged in competitive activities in which both group prizes (a trophy) and individual prizes (a pocket knife and medal) were awarded to the winning team.
As soon as each group learned of the other’s existence, conflicts arose. It began with various forms of verbal abuse such as name-calling and taunting. Once the two groups were placed in real competition with each other, the conflicts became even more pronounced.
As the competitions wore on, the hostilities became much greater. The teams refused to eat in the same room and they began making up derogatory songs about the competing team. One team burned the opposing team’s flag, while both teams raided and vandalized each other’s cabins. At one point, the conflict became so great that the researchers had to separate the groups and give them a two-day period to calm down.
At this point, the researchers asked the boys to describe the features of each group. What they found was that while they tended to describe their own group in very favorable terms, they held unfavorable opinions of the opposing group.
The Integration Phase of the Robbers Cave Experiment
During the third and final phase of the Robbers Cave Experiment, the boys were brought together in an attempt to reduce or eliminate the previous friction generated by the competitions. The boys watched films, lit off fireworks, and participated in contests, but the researchers found that none of these activities had any impact on the amount of tension between the members of each group.
In their next attempt to reconcile the groups, the experimenters took all the boys to a new location and engaged them in a series of problem-solving activities. For example, the boys were informed that the drinking water had been sabotaged and that they would need to work together to fix the water faucet.
After cooperating to solve a number of similar problems, it was clear that peace had finally formed between the groups. By the end of the study, the two groups even chose to ride home together on the same bus. When they stopped for refreshments, the group that won prize money in the earlier competitions offered to use that money to pay for milkshakes for the boys from both groups.
Sherif noted that the researchers had made painstaking efforts to ensure that the boys were from similar ethnic, religious, family, and socio-economic backgrounds. None had behavioral problems or past issues with violence.
Since the boys were of similar, stable backgrounds, the results suggest that intergroup conflicts are not the result of mere group differences. Instead, Sherif suggested, each group establishes its own norms, rules, and patterns of behavior.
It is these self-created structures and hierarchies that lead to competition and conflict between groups.
The implications of Sherif’s study go beyond what creates conflict in groups, however. It also offers hope that these intergroup conflicts can be reconciled. Just as the boys in the Eagles and Rattlers learned to work together and eventually achieved amity, the results imply that perhaps such peace could also be reached between opposing groups and warring nations.
Criticisms of the Robbers Cave Experiment
As a field experiment, the Robbers Cave study attempted to create the sort of intergroup conflict that impacts people from all walks of life the world over. While the study was a success and had a good outcome, critics argue that the study suffers from a number of possible problems.
- Artificially-created situation: First, while Sherif and his colleagues attempted to create as realistic a situation as possible, the reality was that both the groups and the competition between the groups were artificial. The situation simply could not replicate the deeply rooted beliefs and other influences that can impact real-world conflicts, such as ideology-based wars or long-held sports rivalries.
- Ethical concerns: The study has also been criticized on ethical grounds since the boys did not know they were participating in a psychological study and did not give consent. The attempts to generate conflict and aggression also exposed the children to both psychological and physical harm.
Perhaps one of the greatest criticisms of the Robbers Cave Experiment is that it simply doesn’t tell the whole story. What the study does not mention is that Sherif and his colleagues had actually performed two previous versions of the experiment that were far less successful.
In the first version of the study, the two groups ended up ganging up on a shared enemy, while in the second study they ended up turning on the experimenters themselves.
While the Robbers Cave experiment is not without criticism, it did have an important influence on our understanding of intergroup conflict. The results supported Sherif’s Realistic Conflict Theory, which suggested that intergroup conflicts arise from competition for resources and opposing goals. The study also reveals how such conflicts contribute to things like prejudice and stereotyping.
The study also hints that one of the best ways to overcome such conflicts is to focus on getting people to work together toward a shared goal. Through this type of socialization, out-group conflicts, prejudice, and discrimination can be effectively reduced.
Cherry F. The ‘Stubborn Particulars’ of Social Psychology: Essays on the Research Process. Florence, KY: Taylor & Francess/Routledge; 1995.
Dean J. War, peace and the role of power in Sherif’s Robbers Cave experiment. Psyblog. Published 2007.
Sherif M, Harvey OJ, White BJ, Hood WR, Sherif CW. Intergroup conflict and cooperation: The Robbers Cave experiment (Vol. 10). Norman, OK: University Book Exchange; 1961.