By Jonathan Farrow from the Thoughtful Pharaoh

A lot happened in the summer of 1954.  The world’s first atomic power station opened in Russia, Alan Turing committed suicide, the CIA set up a coup in Guatemala, food rationing finally ended in the UK, and the first edition of Sports Illustrated was published.  Some pretty big world events, right?

You know what else happened?  22 white, middle class boys boarded a bus to a Boy Scouts of America camp in Oklahoma.  And I’m going to tell you why you should care that they did.

The Robber’s Cave Experiment

On one (presumably sunny) day in 1954, two busses each picked up eleven 11-year-old children who had been screened to be “normal” (Remember, this was 50s America, so that meant white, protestant, middle class, two parents, above-average test scores) and who didn’t know each other.  The busses drove their “normal” boys to a summer camp called Robber’s Cave and deposited them on opposite sides, each group not knowing that the other existed.

For about a week, under the careful surveillance of psychologists posing as counsellors and camp staff, they participated in group bonding activities.  [In some ways, ethics boards have made psychology a lot more boring.  At the same time, it’s probably better that we now consider it unethical to Truman-show 22 pre-teens].

They camped out, played baseball, went swimming, and generally got to know each other.  They even came up with a name for their groups and emblazoned insignia on their t-shirts and caps.  One group killed a snake by a river and dubbed themselves the Rattlesnakes, the other group decided to be patriotic and called themselves the Eagles.

Then came the interesting part.

The experimenters introduced the groups to each other.

The Eagles and the Rattlesnakes were pitted against each other in a series of competitions – baseball, touch football, tug-of-war, and a treasure hunt.  The key aspect of these games was that one group always won and the other lost.  They were zero-sum games.

The result was a little bit scary.  The groups started to hate each other.  It started off with names like “sneak”, “cheat”, and “stinker” but soon developed into cabin raids, flag-burning, and even one Eagle telling another to brush the “dirt” of his clothes after bumping into a Rattler.  There was some serious xenophobia (fear or disgust for the “other” or “alien”).  The experimenters stopped the activities for fear of escalation to serious violence and started to think about how they might eliminate this extreme prejudice.

The crazy part is that these were all “normal” boys who didn’t know each other beforehand and had no reason to hate each other besides that their groups (that had also only been formed weeks ago) were in direct competition.

The experimenters tried to bring the groups together at mealtimes and for positive evening activities, but that only served to escalate the hatred.  They hurled food at each other at dinner time and jostled to be first in line.

What the experimenters tried next was pretty genius.  They got the groups to try and work together to solve problems that affected everyone.  One night the truck that was supposed to deliver food “broke down” so they all teamed up and pulled it out of the ditch with their tug-of-war rope.  Another day, the water supply pipeline broke and they all worked together to find the leak. These superordinate (larger than the group) goals brought the Rattlers and Eagles together.

Inter-group relationships built because of these events and at the end of the camp, some campers asked to mix up the busses and one group that had won $5 in a competitive contest offered to buy milkshakes on the ride home for the whole group.  How nice.  They had been reconciled as easily as they had been set against each other.

A 1997 study showed how this sort of reconciliation can be contagious.  It isn’t just people who have friends in other groups who will be more likely to be empathetic.  If you know someone who has friends in another group, you will be more likely to be nice to people in that group.  Sounds a bit complicated, but basically if you have a friend who is a clown, it’s not only you who will be more likely to not hate clowns, but also all of your friends.  As soon as a few Rattlers got to thinking that maybe the Eagles weren’t so bad, the positive feelings probably spread pretty quickly.

Chemical Basis for Xenophobia

But what was going on in their brains to make this happen?

Don’t worry, the kids weren’t lobotomized to find out.

A 2010 Dutch study out of the University of Amsterdam showed that Oxytocin, the “cuddle chemical”, might have something to do with it.

Research subjects who had ingested some Oxytocin were more “ethnocentric” than their placebo-munching counterparts.  People with a bit of extra Oxytocin in their systems were more likely to say they would sacrifice the lives of many outgroup members to save the life of one ingrouper and associated more positive, human words with ingroupers and more negative, dehumanizing words with outgroupers.

The Robber’s Cave Experiment was one of the first field experiments in social psychology.  It inspired Philip Zambardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment and Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Experiment.  It pushed people to consider why they acted in bigoted ways and showed how easy it can be to both turn people on each other and bring them back together.  When we mistreat people who belong to different racial/social/economic groups, are we really being any more than rational than the Eagles and Rattlers? No, we aren’t.

To find out more about the Robber’s Cave experiment, read this summary article by the leader experimenter, Muzafer Sherif, and this webpage.

Muzafer Sherif is also famous for a series of studies using an interesting phenomenon known as the autokinetic effect.  he showed that people will create group norms and stick to them even when the group is taken away.

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