The Robbers Cave Experiment

Did you ever won­der, when you were a kid, whether your inane “sum­mer camp” ac­tu­ally had some kind of elab­o­rate hid­den pur­pose—say, it was all a sci­ence ex­per­i­ment and the “camp coun­selors” were re­ally re­searchers ob­serv­ing your be­hav­ior?

Me nei­ther.

But we’d have been more para­noid if we’d read In­ter­group Con­flict and Co­op­er­a­tion: The Rob­bers Cave Ex­per­i­ment by Sherif, Har­vey, White, Hood, and Sherif (1954/​1961). In this study, the ex­per­i­men­tal sub­jects—ex­cuse me, “cam­pers”—were 22 boys be­tween 5th and 6th grade, se­lected from 22 differ­ent schools in Ok­la­homa City, of sta­ble mid­dle-class Protes­tant fam­i­lies, do­ing well in school, me­dian IQ 112. They were as well-ad­justed and as similar to each other as the re­searchers could man­age.

The ex­per­i­ment, con­ducted in the be­wil­dered af­ter­math of World War II, was meant to in­ves­ti­gate the causes—and pos­si­ble reme­dies—of in­ter­group con­flict. How would they spark an in­ter­group con­flict to in­ves­ti­gate? Well, the 22 boys were di­vided into two groups of 11 cam­pers, and—

—and that turned out to be quite suffi­cient.

The re­searchers’ origi­nal plans called for the ex­per­i­ment to be con­ducted in three stages. In Stage 1, each group of cam­pers would set­tle in, un­aware of the other group’s ex­is­tence. Toward the end of Stage 1, the groups would grad­u­ally be made aware of each other. In Stage 2, a set of con­tests and prize com­pe­ti­tions would set the two groups at odds.

They needn’t have both­ered with Stage 2. There was hos­tility al­most from the mo­ment each group be­came aware of the other group’s ex­is­tence: They were us­ing our camp­ground, our base­ball di­a­mond. On their first meet­ing, the two groups be­gan hurl­ing in­sults. They named them­selves the Rat­tlers and the Ea­gles (they hadn’t needed names when they were the only group on the camp­ground).

When the con­tests and prizes were an­nounced, in ac­cor­dance with pre-es­tab­lished ex­per­i­men­tal pro­ce­dure, the in­ter­group ri­valry rose to a fever pitch. Good sports­man­ship in the con­tests was ev­i­dent for the first two days but rapidly dis­in­te­grated.

The Ea­gles stole the Rat­tlers’ flag and burned it. Rat­tlers raided the Ea­gles’ cabin and stole the blue jeans of the group leader, which they painted or­ange and car­ried as a flag the next day, in­scribed with the leg­end “The Last of the Ea­gles”. The Ea­gles launched a re­tal­i­a­tory raid on the Rat­tlers, turn­ing over beds, scat­ter­ing dirt. Then they re­turned to their cabin where they en­trenched and pre­pared weapons (socks filled with rocks) in case of a re­turn raid. After the Ea­gles won the last con­test planned for Stage 2, the Rat­tlers raided their cabin and stole the prizes. This de­vel­oped into a fist­fight that the staff had to shut down for fear of in­jury. The Ea­gles, retel­ling the tale among them­selves, turned the whole af­fair into a mag­nifi­cent vic­tory—they’d chased the Rat­tlers “over halfway back to their cabin” (they hadn’t).

Each group de­vel­oped a nega­tive stereo­type of Them and a con­trast­ing pos­i­tive stereo­type of Us. The Rat­tlers swore heav­ily. The Ea­gles, af­ter win­ning one game, con­cluded that the Ea­gles had won be­cause of their prayers and the Rat­tlers had lost be­cause they used cuss-words all the time. The Ea­gles de­cided to stop us­ing cuss-words them­selves. They also con­cluded that since the Rat­tlers swore all the time, it would be wiser not to talk to them. The Ea­gles de­vel­oped an image of them­selves as proper-and-moral; the Rat­tlers de­vel­oped an image of them­selves as rough-and-tough.

Group mem­bers held their noses when mem­bers of the other group passed.

In Stage 3, the re­searchers tried to re­duce fric­tion be­tween the two groups.

Mere con­tact (be­ing pre­sent with­out con­test­ing) did not re­duce fric­tion be­tween the two groups. At­tend­ing pleas­ant events to­gether—for ex­am­ple, shoot­ing off Fourth of July fire­works—did not re­duce fric­tion; in­stead it de­vel­oped into a food fight.

Would you care to guess what did work?

(Spoiler space...)

The boys were in­formed that there might be a wa­ter short­age in the whole camp, due to mys­te­ri­ous trou­ble with the wa­ter sys­tem—pos­si­bly due to van­dals. (The Out­side Enemy, one of the old­est tricks in the book.)

The area be­tween the camp and the reser­voir would have to be in­spected by four search de­tails. (Ini­tially, these search de­tails were com­posed uniformly of mem­bers from each group.) All de­tails would meet up at the wa­ter tank if noth­ing was found. As noth­ing was found, the groups met at the wa­ter tank and ob­served for them­selves that no wa­ter was com­ing from the faucet. The two groups of boys dis­cussed where the prob­lem might lie, pounded the sides of the wa­ter tank, dis­cov­ered a lad­der to the top, ver­ified that the wa­ter tank was full, and fi­nally found the sack stuffed in the wa­ter faucet. All the boys gath­ered around the faucet to clear it. Sugges­tions from mem­bers of both groups were thrown at the prob­lem and boys from both sides tried to im­ple­ment them.

When the faucet was fi­nally cleared, the Rat­tlers, who had can­teens, did not ob­ject to the Ea­gles tak­ing a first turn at the faucets (the Ea­gles didn’t have can­teens with them). No in­sults were hurled, not even the cus­tom­ary “Ladies first”.

It wasn’t the end of the ri­valry. There was an­other food fight, with in­sults, the next morn­ing. But a few more com­mon tasks, re­quiring co­op­er­a­tion from both groups—e.g. restart­ing a stalled truck—did the job. At the end of the trip, the Rat­tlers used $5 won in a bean-toss con­test to buy malts for all the boys in both groups.

The Rob­bers Cave Ex­per­i­ment illus­trates the psy­chol­ogy of hunter-gath­erer bands, echoed through time, as perfectly as any ex­per­i­ment ever de­vised by so­cial sci­ence.

Any re­sem­blance to mod­ern poli­tics is just your imag­i­na­tion.

(Some­times I think hu­man­ity’s sec­ond-great­est need is a su­pervillain. Maybe I’ll go into that line of work af­ter I finish my cur­rent job.)


Sherif, M., Har­vey, O. J., White, B. J., Hood, W. R., & Sherif, C. W. 1954/​1961. Study of pos­i­tive and nega­tive in­ter­group at­ti­tudes be­tween ex­per­i­men­tally pro­duced groups: Rob­bers Cave study. Univer­sity of Ok­la­homa.