Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Robber’s Cave Experiment


The Robber’s Cave Experiment conducted by Muzafer Sherif (1961) focused on how competition between individuals can create prejudice and intergroup conflict. The experiment took place at Robber’s Cave State Park, Oklahoma involving two groups of eleven to twelve year old boys. All the boys were of similar backgrounds (white, middle-class) and complete strangers to one another. They were randomly assigned to a group and knew nothing about the other group before the first phase. The members of each group were encouraged to bond with each other and each group began establishing their own group name and culture. The second phase of the experiment was the competition between the two groups. The “Eagles” and “Rattlers” competed aggressively against each other in many activities, such as football, tug-o-war, and treasure hunt. The winning team would be able to get a trophy and there were prizes for the individual members of the winning team, while the losing team would receive nothing. The rivalry became so aggressive that the groups burned each others’ flags, cabins were ransacked, and other hostile things were done. In the end, the experimenters had to physically separate the groups.

Does this experiment mimic real life?

Is competition the only reason for group conflict?


  1. According to Ashmore, Jussim, and Wilder (2001), intergroup conflict often happens when it is perceived that positive results will be achieved at the expense of another group. Things turn from "we are good" to "we are better", and social comparison then becomes social competition. Since this seems to most often be relevant in situations where resources are extremely limited, maybe the competition element could be reduced as an instigator for intergroup conflict if resources are addressed as well as intergroup reactions.

  2. In the Robber’s Cave Experiment (Muzafer Sherif, 1961), the two groups consisting of all white, healthy middle-class boys, were introduced in a competitive setting. Aside from originally being arranged into these groups, there was no physical, dividing quality that separated strangers from one group or the other but there was a mental note making them aware of which group was theirs. The competition introduced a group goal with the motivation of winning a trophy, medals and other prizes were at stake. Once winners were determined, they became the ones in possession of the valuable, limited resources (the prizes) and they could feel a potential threat of losing/ damaging their prize. According to the Realistic Conflict Theory (Levine & Campbell, 1972), the losers would then experience resent and frustration. At this point the competition is over but the prizes do provide a physical separation. The losers experience relative deprivation and as individuals, they are presented with a need for self-esteem. According to the Social Identity Theory (Tajfel 1982, John Turner, 1987), the personal & social identities act together in order to attain a personal/ group achievement (even at the expense of the other group) to gain self-esteem.

    In both theories there are comparisons drawn from the individuals of one group with the next. The realistic conflict theory presents it in terms of a physical dividing entity (possession of the prizes) whereas the social identity theory presents an emotional barrier (need to win for self esteem). Through looking at these theories in relation to the experiment, even though the camp-organized competition ended, competition in reality doesn’t end and it plays a major role in group conflict. I would be curious to see the effects on individuals within the groups if there had been more variety (not just limited to white, healthy, middle-class boys).

  3. I think the most important part of Sherifs experiment was when the experimenters tried to bring the two groups together through common goals. This part of the Experiment does simulate real life because the two groups of boys that were once fighting with each other, now had to work together to solve problems that required the two groups to become one team. Sherif noted, after the experiment was deemed successful, that this type of intergroup contact that happened in two weeks would take a much longer time in the real world.

  4. Even in an environment that is safe and peaceful, when two groups of people are presented with a certain competition that will evaluate the groups with awards leads to hostile and aggressive behaviors. Giving a certain award would mean to differentiate groups by the criteria’s of winning and losing. This would create a warfare environment since there are two groups that are ambitious for winning. What is interesting is that the bond created in each individual that is a part of the group. David Livingston Smith (2007) believes that the warriors compared to pacifists are more likely to attract mates and be accepted as a part of a certain group since the ones that fight has a greater chance for success. So being in a group would provoke people to act more like other members expect them to act in order to belong. Which makes me question if it was an individual game would there be less aggressive behavior?

    I also believed that another experiment with the winner group can be created since aggressive behavior is affected by learning. Would the children in the group that had a prize, which means a good outcome, would adapt to this kind of aggressiveness and show it in different environments and would they be more aggressive than other children?

    Also if more varieties are added to Robber’s Cave Experiment such as culture, gender, race other genetic factors would the amount of aggression be different would also be a question to be taken into consideration. Which varieties effect and provokes aggression more?

  5. The study was criticized on the fact that it doesn’t necessary reflect real life. The groups were not diverse as found in society, the individuals didn’t’ know the aim of the study, and the sample was overall bias. Sherif states in his book The Robbers Cave experiment: intergroup conflict and cooperation that “eleven-year-old boys are certainly not to be taken as adults, nor their behavior in groups as identical with that of adult groups” (66). It is also important to note the role of the authority figure. In this experiment, there were staff members present however, there interactions “even seemingly unimportant silence or prompting or negation during interaction in problem situations may greatly influence the direction activities take” (Sherif 66). The consequences for one’s actions also play a role. If one is not punished then he may repeat the act each time pushing the boundary. At which point it may be less about the competition and more about what he can get away with before experiencing consequence.

  6. I don’t think this experiment mimics real life as it intended to the way the experiment is set up automatically calls for negative attitudes among the two groups. It’s important to note that the teams were only introduced initially under the circumstance of a tournament; this immediately creates attitudes about each other and a goal to beat and compete with the other group. In an essay by Benedict Anderson “Imagined communities” he talks about how people are tied to their communities and are willing to fight and even die in the name of the community even if they will never meet a quarter of all the members in it, although in the case of 11 year old boys at summer camp I don’t think it is this extreme they had formed their own small communities the “Rattlers” and the “Eagles” and when they come together to solely compete against one another they see it as they are competing against another community. I think the experiment would be much more accurate if the camps had been introduced before hand for a period of time without competition. Had the teams been introduced under different circumstances which didn’t require competition among the different group’s negative attitudes and action would be much less likely to occur.

  7. This experiment and the research that it was a part of has influenced research in the area of social psychology and intergroup conflict since it was first undertaken in the 1950s. There has been some criticism of it, including the fact that it was not ‘real’. There are also queries as to what would happen if the superordinate goals were not successful. In the years since then, much new information has been learned and Sherif’s superordinate goals and Realistic Conflict Group Theory have been developed and grown into new theories.

  8. I do think that this specific experiment is relevant to intergroup contact, as it explicitly gets two groups to get involved in "cooperative activities,"(which is one of the four contact hypothesis conditions as stated in the book) but I think that in a way it is a reverse intergroup contact. The experimenters did prove that by joining complete strangers and making them strive for a common goal would lead to a meshing of their group, and an interaction among them, but in the end, it did not reduce conflict in any way; it instigated conflict actually. This might be relevant to reality as a lot of groups in society are always competing against each other, and because of this, both groups end up engaging in a sense of fraternity among themselves as they try to beat out the other competitor group, but essentially this is not a great way to reduce prejudice or conflict in any way.

  9. This does somewhat mimic instances of real life. Maybe not in all cases of intergroup conflict as there are limitless reasons of why this may exist.
    However, realistic conflict theory states that hostility between groups is caused by direct competition for limited resources. Although initially there seems to be no limited resources in this circumstance that is needed for survival, there is the limited resource of prizes and rewards to be won by the winning group. The key term here is limited, may it be food for necessity or just something as simple as winning prizes is enough to create group conflict. However this instance is less about intergroup conflict and more about outgroup conflict and the conflict created and stimulated by the other opposing group.

    However looking at this in relation to intergroup contact, it is observed that intergroup contact theory is actually working well and positively from an internal standpoint. The groups are working together towards a superordinate goal (which is one of the factors known to stimulate intergroup contact), in this sense, it is working well but it has gotten to an point whereby negative actions are taken in order to achieve this.
    The implementation of competition is often known to stimulate (not always) some sort of aggression, so although this topic does greatly reflect group conflict, it also has to do with aggression.
    Therefore, although believed that this sort of circumstance is likely in real life, it is important to note that aggression, especially in young boys which high hormonal levels, is not particularly accurate in depicting the widespread and extensive way in which groups would necessarily react to implemented competition in this way. Also, noting that young males are more likely to outwardly act towards instrumental aggression which is more physically violent.