#568: The Untold Story Behind the Famous Robbers Cave Experiment
In the summer of 1954, two groups of 8- to 11-year-old boys were taken to a summer camp in Oklahoma and pitted against each other in competitions for prizes. What started out as typical games of baseball and tug-of-war turned into violent night raids and fistfights, proving that humans in groups form tribal identities that create conflict.
This is the basic outline of a research study many are still familiar with today: the Robbers Cave experiment. But it's only one part of the story.
My guest dug into the archival notes of this famous and controversial social experiment to find unknown and unreported details behind what really happened and why. Her name is Gina Perry and her book is The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif's Robbers Cave Experiment. We begin our conversation by discussing what the Robbers Cave experiment purported to show and the influence the experiment has had on social psychology since. We then discuss the similarities between head researcher Muzafer Sherif's ideas about the behavior of boys in groups with those of William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, and how both men's ideas were influenced by their personal experiences in war. We also dig into the general connection between children's summer camps and psychological studies in the 19th century. Then turning to the Robbers Cave experiment itself, Gina shares how that experiment wasn't Sherif's first attempt at this kind of field study, and how it had been preceded by another experiment in which the boys turned on the researchers. She describes how Sherif and his assistants attempted to get different results at Robbers Cave by goading the boys into greater conflict and how they got the boys to reconcile after whipping them up into a competitive frenzy. At the end of our conversation, Gina talks about finding the boys who were in the experiment and what these now grown men thought of the experience, and we discuss whether or not there's anything to be learned from Robbers Cave on the nature of group conflict.
Get the show notes at aom.is/robberscave.