Robbers Cave Experiment

Robbers Cave Experiment
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The Robbers Cave Experiment

In the mid-1950’s Muzafer Sherif and others carried out the Robbers Cave experiment on intergroup conflict and co-operation as a part of research programme at the University of Oklahoma. In the experiment, 22 white, 11-year-old boys were sent to a special remote summer camp in Oklahoma, Robbers Cave State Park.

The boys developed an attachment to their groups throughout the first week of the camp by doing various activities together like hiking, swimming, etc. The boys chose names for their groups, The Eagles and The Rattlers.

During a four-day series of competitions between the groups prejudice began to become apparent between the two groups (both physical and verbal). During the subsequent two-day cooling off period, the boys listed features of the two groups.

The boys tended to characterize their own in-group in very favourable terms, and the other out-group in very unfavourable terms.

Sherif then attempted to reduce the prejudice, or inter-group conflict, shown by each group. However, simply increasing the contact of the two groups only made the situation worse.

Alternatively forcing the groups to work together to reach common goals, eased prejudice and tension among the groups. This experiment confirmed Sherif’s realistic conflict theory (also called realistic group conflict theory), the idea that group conflict can result from competition over resources.

How was the experiment carried out?

The study took place in three separate stages that were approximately 1 week apart: (1) group formation, (2) intergroup competition, and (3) intergroup cooperation.

See also  Social Conformity

The purpose of the first stage was to encourage the development of unique ingroup identities among the groups. This occurred as a result of the boys engaging in shared activities (e.g., swimming, hiking) with their own groups, which indeed led to the spontaneous emergence of norms, leaders, and identities.

In the second stage, the groups were introduced and placed in direct competition with one another. Thus, the boys competed in a series of contests involving activities such as baseball and tug-of-war.

The group that won overall was to be awarded a trophy and other prizes, and the losing group was to receive nothing. The result was a vicious rivalry between the groups, with both verbal and physical attacks being commonplace.

For instance, the boys engaged in name-calling and taunting, as well as more physical acts of aggression such as stealing the winning group’s prizes and burning each other’s team flags. Clearly, the researchers’ goal of creating intergroup conflict was easily achieved.

However, resolving this conflict turned out to be a more difficult task.

In the final stage of the experiment, researchers arranged specific situations designed to reduce the severe hostility between groups. First, the groups were provided with noncompetitive opportunities for increased contact, such as watching movies and sharing meals together.

However, these getting-to-know-you opportunities did little to defuse intergroup hostility. In fact, many of these situations resulted in an exchange of verbal insults and, occasionally, food fights.

As an alternative strategy, the groups were placed in situations that required them to cooperate with one another (i.e., the situations involved superordinate goals).

See also  Self-Deception

For instance, one situation involved a broken-down truck carrying supplies to the camp. Another involved a problem with the camp’s water supply.

In both cases, the groups needed to work together because the resources at stake were important to everyone involved. This cooperation resulted in more harmonious relations between groups, as friendships began to develop across group lines.

The hypotheses tested were:
  • When individuals who don’t know each other are brought together to interact in group activities in order to achieve common goals, they will produce a group structure with hierarchical statuses and roles within it.
  • When two in-groups, once formed, are brought into functional relationship under conditions of competition and group frustration, attitudes and appropriate hostile actions in relation to the out-group and its members will arise; these will be standardised and shared in varying degrees by group members.

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