Robbers Cave Experiment

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Life imitates art, and art imitates life. Many say, for example, that the Robbers Cave Experiment and Lord of the Flies are an example of art imitating life.

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 finds 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 Foundation gave psychologist Muzafer Sherif $38,000 to conduct a fascinating research experiment. Tired of working with lab rats, Sherif set out to do something unusual - an experiment that one could say mirrored Lord of the Flies. He ended up putting together the Robbers Cave Experiment.

What Is the Robbers Cave Experiment?

The Robbers Cave experiment, once known for its fascinating insight into group conflict theory, is now more infamous than famous. Regardless of its reputation, it remains one of the most well-known social psychology experiments of the 20th century. It attempted to reveal fascinating insights into group conflict and how easily people turn against each other. 

Who is Muzafer Sherif?

Muzafer Sherif is the man behind the Robber’s Cave Experiment. Born in Turkey, he witnesses a lot of violence due to the separation of ethnic groups. The violence encouraged him to become a psychologist and attend Harvard University. When he originally published the Robbers Cave Experiment, he earned praise for his work. In recent years, however, criticisms of the Robbers Cave experiment have overshadowed his accomplishments.

How the Robbers Cave Experiment Was Conducted

Sherif’s Theory

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.

Setting Up the Robbers Cave Experiment

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.

Final Results of Robbers Cave Experiment

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.

One thing to note here is that the boys still did not know they were a part of an experiment. Sherif never revealed this information to them. As you'll read later in this article, they didn't find out about their participation in the experiment until 50+ years later. That's a long time to not knowing that you impacted psychology forever!

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 assumption 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.

Criticisms of the Robbers Cave Experiment

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.

Middle Grove 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 Robbers 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. With results that supported his hypothesis, Sherif felt more comfortable publishing his results. The results attempted to reveal the deeper parts of humanity, but the process surrounding Robbers Cave really just revealed a lot about Sherif.

Robbers Cave Experiment vs. Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies didn't exactly have the same resolution as the Robbers Cave experiment. Although the book and experiment are often compared, there are significant differences in how the boys interacted and how their "stories" ended.

(If you haven't read Lord of the Flies, skip to the next section. There are spoilers ahead!)

In Lord of the Flies, (which, keep in mind, is a fictional story,) a group of boys are stranded on an island after their plane is shot down. They are immediately in distress. They also aren't split up into two groups, although ingroups and outgroups begin to form based on age later in the book. At first, the process of finding food and building a fire is fairly democratic. Rifts really form after individuals or pairs make mistakes. The violence also escalates far beyond what would have been allowed in the Robbers Cave experiment. One boy, Piggy, is killed.

The resolution in the Robbers Cave experiment is the result of a problem that all the boys work to solve together. These tasks start from the very beginning of Lord of the Flies. (The book ends with all the boys sobbing after they have been rescued.)

Remember that Lord of the Flies was fiction and came from the mind of William Golding. Although, many might argue that the results of the Robbers Cave Experiment were also manipulated...

Legacy of the Robbers Cave Experiment and Muzafer Sherif

Lord of the Flies will likely be on reading lists for decades to come. Will Sherif's experiment also stand the test of time? It might not. A 2018 book by Gina Perry suggests that the experiment was not as groundbreaking or revealing as it might seem.

Gina Perry is a psychologist and the author of two books that dive into psychology's most famous experiments. (In 2013, Perry published "Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments." The book looks at Stanley Milgram's personal life and how it may have affected the results of his experiment.) Her take on Sherif's work is particularly fascinating. She shows how Sherif actively worked to manipulate the results of the Robbers Cave Experiment to prove his theory.

Two interesting points stand out from her book, although the entire story is worth a read.

  1. The participants didn't know that they were a part of the study until Perry contacted them herself.
  2. Sherif was so proud of his experiment that he went back to Robbers Cave to celebrate his 80th birthday.

If you are interested in reading more about the legacy of the Robbers Cave experiment, buy Gina Perry's book "The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif's Robbers Cave Experiment" or check it out of your local library. Learning the context behind the experiment puts the results into a different perspective.

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.

More data and experiments are looking at realistic conflict theory. Psychologists may change their perspectives 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.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2019, December). Robbers Cave Experiment. Retrieved from

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