It’s been 25 weeks since we started this epic journey through the alphabet together, and sadly we are nearing the end. At this critical juncture, just one letter away from the finality of zed, I thought I would bestow my Pharaoh powers on to you, dear readers.
Comment below with your burning science questions, and I will answer them all next week in my final ABCs of Interesting Things post.
Thank you for reading. I leave this quest in your very capable hands.
For those still aching for some interesting science facts, how about these “you” facts:
All of the atoms in your body were made inside stars, as the great Carl Sagan said the 1980 TV Series Cosmos: “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies, were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”
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.
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.
Consider the following: schooling fish, roundabouts, segregation, and human consciousness are all examples of the same fundamental property of the world. It may seem crazy to suggest that roundabouts may be interesting in some sense, but bear with me.
The property in question, and this week’s topic, is emergence. In each case individual entities, by following simple rules, can create complex patterns of behaviour. What makes these patterns special is that they can’t be predicted based on the simple rules alone.
If you’ve ever seen a murmuration of starlings, you have probably found yourself wondering how that many birds (upwards of 100,000) can all fly so quickly in such close proximity without hitting each other. For those of you uninterested in ornithology (the study of birds), there are also plenty of examples of swarms in entomology (the study of insects) and ichthyology (the study of fish), and even chiropterology (study of bats).
In each case, the animals are unaware (and frankly, uncaring) of the beautiful shapes their swarms make. They aren’t even trying to swarm. They are trying to survive and their instinct tells them to follow a few simple rules. Since the advent of computers, scientists have been trying to find out what those rules are.
One of the most famous computational models of swarming behaviour was proposed by Craig Reynolds in 1986. In his Boids program, simulated birds had to follow three rules:
Separation: Don’t crash (steer away from nearby boids).
Alignment: Get with the program (steer towards the average heading of nearby boids)
Cohesion: Don’t get lost (steer towards the average location of nearby boids)
This model is actually a really good model for the behaviour we observe in birds and fish. Recent studies have also shown this alignment rule is especially important for bats.
Locusts, on the other hand, seem to have a much simpler set of rules. Locusts just want to avoid getting their backsides eaten. When approached from behind, locusts will tend to fly forward for fear of cannibalism. This creates an overall tendency to move forward and can lead to giant swarms.
If you’ve ever been to Swindon (and, from what I hear, you’re not missing much if you haven’t), you might have come across quite possibly the most offensive piece of civil engineering in the UK.
As a North American, I cringe at the thought of even a tiny roundabout but Swindonians apparently hate everything that is good in this world.
They built the Magic Roundabout. A terrifying series of 6 small roundabouts encircling a larger roundabout that goes the other way. If that sounds confusing, it’s because it is.
The vast majority of people pass through fine, despite there being 5 different entry and exit points and many conflict points (places where streams of traffic cross). This happens because of a few simple rules:
Follow the lines
Give way to cars coming from the right
Drive to where you want to go
Apparently it’s actually an effective way to move cars through an intersection, but my North American sensibilities just can’t handle it.
Choosing who you associate with based on a singular trait has been known to lead to a lot of issues in the past. As a dog person, I’ve lost a lot of friends to cats (and their parasites). Despite my friendly demeanour and my ability to put up with a fairly large proportion of cat-lovers in my immediate vicinity, at a certain point I start to feel uncomfortable and want more fellow dog-lovers.
In 1971, Thomas Schelling set out to model this behaviour and came out with a somewhat surprising and scary result. Even when people are fine with being in the minority, if they are dissatisfied when surrounded by a large majority of “others”, they will tend towards segregation. The model followed a few simple rules:
If you are surrounded by a certain percentage (e.g. 30%) of similar people, you are satisfied
If you are surrounded by a certain percentage of different people (e.g. 70%), you are dissatisfied
If you are dissatisfied, move to somewhere where you are satisfied.
Within a few rounds, there is very little diversity left as people tend to move towards those who are similar. This, despite the fact that no individual is saying they outright dislike the other group or couldn’t live with members of the other group. This model helps to explain why segregation is so hard to eliminate.
Interestingly, this tendency towards segregation can be reversed if a maximum of similar people rule is added:
4. If you are surrounded by a certain percentage of similar people (e.g. 90%) you are dissatisfied
There are approximately 100 billion neurons in an adult human brain. These neurons are connected in intricate ways to create an estimated 100 trillion connections.
Somehow (and to be honest we’re not really sure how yet), these connections lead to all of our brains’ activities from thought to imagination and memory. The abilities of the system (the brain) couldn’t possibly be known from the rules that neurons abide by. All that a neuron does is pass on its signal according to a set of rules. We still don’t know what those rules are.
We do know that when a neuron is activated (whether by electrical or chemical stimulation), it activates other neurons. The precise number and location of these other neurons is still a big mystery in neuroscience, but it must be activating both nearby neurons and neurons on the other side of the brain. This dual activation of long- and short-distance connections is what creates the sustained patterns we observe in fMRI scans.
While I don’t mean to suggest that everything in life can be boiled down to simple rules, I think it’s pretty incredible the patterns that emerge from individual actors all playing their parts.