“Conflict between groups – whether between boys’ gangs, social classes, “races” or nations – has no simple cause, nor is mankind yet in sight of a cure” (Sherif 1956)
Behavioral Science: A Quick Background Story
The studies of group conflict belong to Behavioral science, which is a new, yet, at the same time, an old science. The roots of behavioral science go back to socio-biology, with Charles Darwin as a pioneer, and have evolved through evolutionary-, cognitive- and social psychology. After World War 2, behavioral science and especially social psychology became popular mainly in the United States. The research questions were motivated by a concern to avoid a new World War and Holocaust in a combination with a curiosity as to what triggers group-conflict and obedience to authority.
In this paper, we focus on the classic field experiment by the authors Sherif and Sherif; commonly referred to as the Robbers Cave Experiment. Sherif’s research questions look into particular to questions:
- What sparks group conflicts?
- How can we bring harmony between groups?
The experiment was conducted in Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma. The study, which is called Experiment in Group Conflict, was first published in the journal Scientific American in 1956 (vol. 195, no 5). Further elaborations of the study were published in 1958 and 1961.
The experiment is a classic in Behavioral science as it demonstrates how social dynamics work to establish groups and how group conflicts, prejudices, and stereotypes can escalate and get out of hand.
Modern Behavioral Science
Today’s Behavioral science is well-known for its contribution to the social sciences. Empirical studies show that the human cognition (thinking) is not a mainly rational process as once believed. Especially, Nobel Prize-winner D. Kahnemann has formed a new scientific agenda focusing on cognitive biases, habits, and intuitions as central in our decision-making.
Rationality does play a part in our decision-making but it is a slow and energy-demanding process, so unless we get a clue where rationality is in demand we try to avoid the use of it. This renders our decision-making open to biases such as, for example, preferring people in our own group; also called in-group favoritism.
The Robbers Cave State Park Experiment
The social experiments took place in the Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma in 1954. Twenty-two 11-12-year-old boys were sent summer camping in Robbers Cave.
During the first phase of the experiment, the boys were assigned to one of two groups. Hereafter, the two groups were kept apart. The group members participated in different tasks and duties such as cooking and hiking. The social life in the groups, especially solving tasks, led to the formation of coherent groups with social hierarchies in which leaders (alpha), beta (followers), and at least one omega as an underdog emerged.
The boys chose names for their groups, The Eagles and The Rattlers, and painted them onto shirts and flags.
In the second phase of the experiment, groups start interacting with each other. Further, the research team arranged competitions in order to produce friction between the groups of boys. They arranged tournaments of games: baseball, treasure hunt, football, and so on. The tournaments started out as good sportsmanship but ended in dirty rivaling.
The rivaling got worse; it escalated and intensified. At first, this prejudice was only verbally expressed, such as teasing, taunting, or name-calling. As the competitions wore on, this expression took a more direct route. The Eagles burned the Rattler’s flag. The next day, the Rattler’s ransacked The Eagle’s cabin, overturned beds, and stole private property.
Within each group, solidarity increased in combination with changes in social hierarchies. One leader was removed because he could not stand the pressure, and a boy who previously was regarded as a bully (omega) was made a hero due to his bullying of members of the other group.
Finally, the groups became so aggressive with each other that the researchers separated them and progressed into a third phase of the experiment. The aim of this phase was to examine how the groups could be brought together in harmony.
At first, the two groups were brought to social events such as going to the movies, eating in the same dining room, and so on. Unfortunately, this was counterproductive as the social events served as opportunities for the rival groups to attack each other again and thereby intensify the conflict.
Sherif describes how favorable information about the other group was reinterpreted to fit stereotyped views about the group. Furthermore, leaders could not act without regard for the prevailing temper in the groups.
Due to the failed attempt to bring harmony to the inter-group relations, the research team changed strategy. They brought the groups together to work on common ends that could only be achieved if the two groups worked together.
The groups had to work together to secure the water supply and gain access to food.
These joint efforts did not immediately dispel hostility, but gradually the series of cooperative acts reduced friction and conflict. Gradually new friendships developed between individuals in the two groups. In the end, the two groups decide to hold a joint campfire.
Sherif (p. 58) formulates it like this:
“In short, hostility gives way when groups pull together to achieve overriding goals which are real and compelling to all concerned”
The Relevance of the Experiment Today?
The Robbers Cave study has been criticized for a number of reasons. First, the sampling in the study is obviously a problem as the study only includes white healthy middle class 11-12 years old boys from stable protestant homes. Girls, other races, and other religious beliefs than Protestantism were not included.
Further, the study is criticized for being unethical. The participants were deceived, as they did not know the true aim of the study. Also, participants were not protected from physical and psychological harm.
Can we learn from the experiment? Yes, we can learn that it takes very little perceived competition to accelerate group conflicts. At the same time, the question is whether or not we convince ourselves that we are neutral in our own decisions or realize that we do have a tendency to favor people from our own group in everyday life, working life, and the organization that we work in?
We all interact with each other in many different group formations and make important decisions. But do we actually value the suggestions from people who are not in our group when they have better suggestions or more relevant information, or do we prefer suggestions from our own group members?
Furthermore, when groups are established it is not easy to change group members’ perception of themselves and the outgroup. The way out of inter-group conflicts with a spin of prejudice and stereotypes is to establish a common goal that can make individuals from different groups work together.
The Robbers Cave experiment illuminates the kind of group conflicts that take place all over the world. The conflicts are salient in civil wars with ethnic cleansing and wars between nations, but inter-group conflict and bringing harmony between individuals with a commitment to groups are relevant far beyond war issues.
Competition arises in situations where people perceive resources to be scarce, and that is a trigger of group conflict, especially if the distribution of resources is regarded as unfair. There is a lot of evidence that when people compete for scarce resources (e.g. fundamental rights, jobs, land, etc.) there is a rise in hostility between groups. For example, in times of financial difficulty, there may be high levels of racism among white people who believe that black people take their jobs, and asylum seekers are profiting off a well-established welfare system. These are among the more contemporary and challenging examples of accelerating group conflicts today.
From a historical perspective, we find prominent examples of group conflict, e.g. the US Civil War, The French Revolution, the fight against apartheid, and the women’s movement. These examples illuminate how group conflict has the potential to change a system. The group conflict in these cases is in defining fundamental rights and thereby defining who is part of the common in society.
In light of this experiment, an enormously important task of a leader is to keep people on the same page working together with a common purpose.
Use the knowledge about behavior and expect perspectives to be influenced by group dynamics. Be aware of the different roles each coworker has in the group. If you’re working with reorganizing, and especially the merging of organizations, pay attention to inter-group conflicts, particularly the ‘Us Versus Them’ perspectives that will flourish. Even though there won’t be fights over food there will by fights for identities and common goods and resources in the organization.
Sherif, M. (1954). Experimental study of positive and negative intergroup attitudes between experimentally produced groups: robbers cave study.
Sherif M. (1956). Experiments in Group Conflict. Scientific America, v195 nr. 5, pp 54-59.
Sherif, M. (1958). Superordinate goals in the reduction of intergroup conflict. American Journal of Sociology, 349-356.
Sherif, M., Harvey, O. J., White, B. J., Hood, W. R., & Sherif, C. W.
(1961). Intergroup conflict and cooperation: The Robbers Cave experiment (Vol. 10). Norman, OK: University Book Exchange.
Please note that we write Sherif and Sherif even though the first article only has Muzafer Sherif as the author. Muzafer’s wife was deeply involved in the project but she only appears as an author in the last article from 1961. Sherif and Sherif have later explained that the project was a collaboration.
About the Authors:
Pia Vedel Ankersen
Pia Vedel Ankersen, PhD, is Director of the Research Program Organization, Coordination, and Citizen Involvement at the VIA Campus Research Center for Management, Organization, and Social Science.
Pernille Bjørnholt Nielsen
Pernille Bjørnholt Nielsen, cand.scient.soc, is a consultant at
DEFACTUM – a research and consultancy house. She is also the managing director at TegnLet – a Danish company helping organizations use drawings to enhance communication in processes of design, planning, and change processes, etc. – combining behavioral science with graphic facilitation.