In an effort to test one of his theories on social behavior, psychologist Muzafer Sherif released 22 twelve-year-old boys into a sparsely supervised wilderness camp — and then covertly provoked them to fight each other.
In the summer of 1954, world-renowned social psychologist Muzafer Sherif toted 22 boys to the foothills of the San Bois Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma. There, in Robbers Cave State Park, he intended to conduct an unprecedented social experiment that involved pitting sparsely supervised 12-year-old boys against each other in the Oklahoma wilderness.
This was the Robbers Cave experiment, and its startling outcome would inspire the harrowing book Lord of the Flies just a year later. Nearly six decades since, experts dub the experiment unethical as it appears to have left lasting mental damage on its subjects.
The First Experiment: Camp Middle Grove
Muzafer Sherif was born in the Ottoman Empire and won a slot to study psychology at Harvard. He quickly realized that lab research on rats was too confining and he wanted a more complex subject: humans.
Fascination with social psychology had, with reason, reached a peak following WWII, and so Sherif was able to secure a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.
His initial experiment required that 11-year-old boys be sent under the guise of a summer camp to Middle Grove park in upstate New York. There Sherif would split the boys into teams, pit them against each other for prizes, and then try to reunite them using a series of frustrating and life-threatening events — like a forest fire. Neither the parents nor the boys, obviously, knew this was a study.
The Robbers Cave experiment, then, was the second of Sherif’s, as his study at Middle Grove in the summer of 1953 had in his mind not accomplished the outcome he had hoped for. He was looking for confirmation of his “Realistic Conflict Theory“, which stated that groups would compete for limited resources even against their friends and allies, but come together in the face of a common disaster regardless of those alliances.
The boys at Middle Grove had not cooperated with this theory. They stayed friends despite all hardships, even when Sherif had his staffers steal their clothes, raze their tents, and smash their toys all the while framing other campers.
The experiment ended in a drunken brawl between one of the leading social psychologists in the world, Muzafer Sherif, and his research assistants as his experiment had not cooperated with him.
Sherif resolved to try again with the Robbers Cave experiment.
The Robbers Cave Experimental Camp
Sherif still had money from the grant for the first study but after his failure, felt that his reputation was at risk. This time he would keep the boys separated from the beginning so that they couldn’t form the pesky friendships which had thwarted the study at Middle Grove. The groups were the Rattlers and the Eagles.
The two groups were unaware of each other for the first two days. They bonded with their own group through standard camp activities like hiking and swimming.
Once the groups seemed to be solidly formed, Sherif and his team instituted the ‘competition phase’ of the Robbers Cave experiment. The groups were introduced to each other and a series of rivalrous activities were scheduled. There would be a tug-of-war, baseball and so forth. Prizes would also be awarded, trophies at stake, and there would be no consolation prizes for the losers. The Rattlers declared they would be the winners and monopolized the baseball field in order to practice.
They put their flag up on the field and told the Eagles they had better not touch it.
The staffers began to interfere more aggressively in the Robbers Cave experiment. They deliberately caused conflict and once arranged for one group to be late for lunch so that the other group would eat all the food.
At first, the conflict between the boys was verbal with just taunts and name-calling. But under the careful guidance of Sherif and his staff, it soon became physical. The Eagles were supplied with matches and they burned their rival’s flag. The Rattlers retaliated, invaded the Eagles’ cabin, and wrecked it and stole their belongings.
The conflict escalated to violence so that the groups had to be separated for two days.
Now that the kids hated each other, Sherif decided it was time to vindicate his theory and bring them back together. So he shut off the drinking water.
The Rattlers and Eagles set off to find the water tank which was on a mountain. The only water they had was what was in their canteens. When they arrived at the tank, hot and thirsty, the groups had already begun to merge.
Resolution and Legacy Of The Robbers Cave Experiment
The campers found the valve to the tank but it was covered with rocks, so they joined together and removed the rocks as quickly as possible. This pleased Sherif immensely as it was in direct agreement with his theory: the groups would fight over limited resources but band together when faced with a common threat.
Nevermind that the experiment was ethically and procedurally dubious, as Sherif had gotten the results that he wanted and his theory, along with the study itself, garnered great publicity. But even professionals who used the study in their textbooks doubted its value.
Six decades of development in the field have led modern psychologists to criticize the study. Sherif conducted his experiment under the belief that it was meant to showcase his theory, not either prove or disprove it. In this way, he could very easily and in many ways did, finagle the outcome he desired.
Further, the boys were all middle-class and white, and all shared a Protestant, two-parent background. The study in this way was not reflective of real-life and was considered limited. There was also the ethical issue surrounding the participants’ deception: neither the children nor their parents knew what they had consented to, and the boys were in many cases left unattended or in danger of harm.
Regardless of these qualms, the Robbers Cave experiment has left a legacy — particularly on the participants.
Now-grown camper Doug Griset recalls ironically: “I’m not traumatized by the experiment, but I don’t like lakes, camps, cabins or tents.”
If you enjoyed this article about the Robbers Cave experiment, then read about how the Stanford Prison Experiment ended in disaster or cringe at this list of the most evil scientific experiments ever performed.