Did you read Lord of the Flies in middle school or high school? Even if you skimmed over the book, you might remember what it’s about. A group of boys find themselves stranded on a desert island without adult supervision. As they try to establish a society, they turn on each other in desperation, and things get brutal.
The book has become a staple of Young Adult fiction and is known for being a reflection of society. It warns that anyone has the potential to get violent if they are desperate enough for scarce resources.
Lord of the Flies came out in 1954. The year before, the Rockefeller gave psychologist Muzafer Sherif $38,000 to conduct a fascinating research experiment. Tired with working with lab rats, Sherif set out to do something unusual - an experiment that one could say mirrored Lord of the Flies.
Muzafer Sherif is the man behind the Robber’s Cave Experiment. This experiment, once known for its fascinating insight into group conflict theory, is now more infamous than famous. Regardless of its reputation, it remains as one of the most well-known social psychology experiments of the 20th century.
Sherif wanted to show how easily groups could turn on each other when they were fighting for limited resources. But he also wanted to show how easily those groups could set aside their differences and come together to defeat a common enemy. Observing these group dynamics couldn’t be done in a lab with rats or dogs. So he took his experiments to a summer camp.
The 22 boys at Robber’s Cave State Park did not know that their summer camp experience would be part of a larger social experiment. They didn’t even know how many people would be at the camp until the second day. On the first day, researchers posing as counselors established two groups of campers: The Eagles and the Rattlers. After the boys bonded within their groups, they were introduced to the others.
The researchers set up a series of competitions over 4-6 days, like baseball games and tug-of-war. Winners received prizes - and the losers would receive nothing. Eventually, they began to set up additional conflicts. For example, one group got access to food while the others were told to wait.
The boys eventually started to develop an “us vs. them” mentality. At first, they only exchanged threats and engaged in verbal conflict. Quickly, however, things became more physical. One group burned the other group’s flag, and one group raided the other group’s cabin and stole items from the boys in that group. Things got violent. In surveys taken during this period, the boys shared negative thoughts and stereotypes against the boys in the other group. This proved the first part of Sherif’s theory.
But he wasn’t done. The Robber’s Cave Experiment then went into a final “friction reduction” phase. All 22 boys were given tasks that would benefit the group as a whole. At one point, the researchers set up a challenge in which a truck delivering food was stuck and couldn’t deliver meals. The boys worked together to get the truck unstuck so they could all eat. In another challenge, the boys formed an assembly line to remove rocks that blocked access to the camp’s water tower. Even though the boys had originally felt hostile toward the boys in the opposing group, they were all able to work together to reach a goal that would benefit the whole group.
Realistic Conflict Theory
This experiment would go on to be key evidence in the Realistic Conflict Theory (RCT.) Donald Campbell coined this term a few years after Sherif’s experiment. At the time, psychologists had talked about group conflict using sex, food, and other basic needs as motivations. Campbell broadened the theory to include larger goals and a wider categorization of resources.
Thus, realistic conflict theory is based on the assumptions that group conflict will become tense whenever these groups must compete for limited resources. These resources could be food, but may also be things like respect, power, or recognition. This tension may lead to stereotyping, violence, and other extreme forms of behavior.
The Robbers Cave Experiment has continued to be one of the most well-known experiments in the world of social psychology. But not all psychologists sing Sherif’s praises. In fact, the Robbers Cave Experiment has become one of the most well-known experiments due to its questionable ethics.
The purpose of an experiment is to test out a hypothesis. If you cannot support your hypothesis with your experiment, the problem is with the hypothesis - not the experiment. When a psychologist approaches an experiment as a way to prove their hypothesis, things can get tricky. Some critics say that’s what Sherif did with the Robbers Cave Experiment.
Before the Robbers Cave Experiment, Sherif conducted a similar experiment at a camp called Middle Grove. But the results didn’t work out like he thought they would. The boys never turned on each other - the bond that they had made at camp before the experiment began was too strong. The “counselors” and Sherif set up pranks to pit the boys against each other, but the boys ended up turning on the counselors instead. They eventually figured out they were being manipulated.
These results were thrown out and only came to light in recent years. With these new findings, psychologists began to refrain from using Robber’s Cave as an example in textbooks and lectures.
Eventually, with tweaks to the experiment (rather than the hypothesis,) Sherif came up with a scenario that would support his theory.
Other Examples of Realistic Conflict Theory
While RCT’s most well-known experiment is no longer known for being ethically sound, there is still evidence to support this theory. A lot of this evidence comes from data related to racial tensions and immigration policy.
In 1983, a paper was published on the opposition to school busing and integration. Data taken around that time supported the idea that opposition to busing wasn’t just fueled by racism itself. Group conflict motives also played a role. The threat of another “group” taking scarce resources (access to education) scared whites during that time period.
We hear similar arguments in the present day. Have you ever heard one of your relatives or talk show commentators argue that “immigrants are taking our jobs?” Never mind the validity behind the threat - the perceived threat is enough to cause hostility and tension.
As more data and experiments look at realistic conflict theory, psychologists may change their perspective on intergroup conflict and other related topics. But for now, the Robbers Cave Experiment offers an important reminder that experiments cannot be conducted simply to prove a hypothesis.