The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave Experiment, by Gina Perry, Scribe, 384 pp, $32.99, ISBN: 978-1925322354
Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave experiment is a classic of social psychology – a case study in conflict and division, and in reconciliation. I first came across it when I was a psychology student in Belfast in the 1980s. I had drifted into psychology the same way I drifted into most things back then and in all likelihood would have drifted back out again. Like Amory Blaine, I found it a dry affair (all “rats and stats” as Gina Perry puts it here) and nurturing a physics envy worse than any economist’s.
But social psychology drew me in, especially the inter-group work that Sherif and his circle pioneered. In Northern Ireland it seemed full of relevance. But for social psychology – but for Sherif – I would have had a different academic life.
Here is the outline of Sherif’s experiment as it was told to us. In the summer of 1954 – same year as Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Brown v Board of Education – a group of boys aged between ten and twelve attended a camp at the Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. On arrival, they were divided into two groups – the Rattlers and the Eagles – each with around a dozen members. Both groups were assigned their own camping areas, over which they flew homemade flags, bearing their respective emblems. For the next few days, just about everything the Eagles and Rattlers did, they did competitively – baseball, tug of war, even keeping their respective shares of the campsite tidy. For the winners, there was a set of camping knives; for the losers, nothing – at the Robbers Cave the game was zero sum. Team scores were displayed in the communal mess hall and updated daily. Totals were generally neck and neck, knife-edge all the way.
Sherif, pretending to be the camp caretaker, “Mr Musee”, was able to observe the boys’ interactions at close quarters, noting how quickly Eagle-Rattler relations soured as the competition got under way. Taunting, name-calling and cheating gave way to vandalism, sabotage and theft. When the Rattlers’ flag was torn down and burnt, they retaliated by snatching an Eagle’s trousers and running them up the flagpole like a trophy of war. Meals frequently degenerated into food fights – “garbage wars” the boys called them. Once, when an Eagle brushed against a Rattler, the Rattler complained that he’d been contaminated. This tetchy conflict was defused only by the late introduction of more cooperative tasks that obliged the boys to work together. When antagonisms had sufficiently cooled, Rattlers and Eagles alike squeezed into the back of a small truck for a daytrip to neighbouring Arkansas. Sherif later recalled how, when the day was done and they were crossing back over the state line on the homeward journey, those two dozen boys sang as one: “Ooh-klahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain” as if cementing their rediscovered unity, all Okies again, Rattlers and Eagles no more.
Muzafer Sherif was born in Turkey in 1906, two years before the Young Turk rebellion, the beginning of the end of the Ottoman empire. These were bitter times, one conflict giving way to the next – two Balkan Wars, the Italo-Turkish War, the First World War. He was a schoolboy in Smyrna when the city was occupied by the Greeks, then re-taken by a resurgent Turkey. Sherif witnessed mass killings, pogroms, whole communities uprooted and moved on. Afterwards, the Kemalists determinedly re-imagined the country as a secular, national state – Smyrna became Izmir, Constantinople became Istanbul. Islam, Arabic and traditional ways were now discouraged.
With this in his past, Sherif’s eventual research interests are perhaps unsurprising – inter-group conflict, conformity to group norms, the role of the collective in the mental lives of its individual members. Dismissive of contemporary psychological theories which attributed conflict to individual personality traits such as aggression or lack of empathy, Sherif argued instead that conflict between groups was a social phenomenon explicable only with reference to the context (political and cultural) in which it occurred. Grow up in a society that pushes competitiveness, and chances are you’ll be a cut-throat competitor. But if your wider society promotes cooperation, you’ll be a lot more agreeable. In Sherif’s native Turkey this was a sufficiently Marxist worldview to kill his career. And in fifties America it proved problematic too. Sherif’s explicitly social take on the human condition led to a break with the great American psychologist Gordon Allport, while his lingering left-wing loyalties remained strong enough to land him on an FBI watch list.
The Robbers Camp study was intended to settle the score by gathering some hard evidence for the Sherif position. What better proof of the power of context than if you take a bunch of ordinary, well-rounded American schoolboys and, in weeks, transform them into hostile tribes – and then transform them back. Fix the context and you fix the conflict.
In Belfast, this chimed. How could it not? Those flags, that territorial marking, all that “them and us” antagonism – bitter, brutal, banal. Here was our secular parable. We were the boys, Rattlers and Eagles. But what if our context could be changed? We, young and not-yet soured, still thought like that, still thought in terms of fixes and solutions. Not a quick fix – no one was that naive, were they? – but a fix of some sort. Integrated education was a favourite. Or consociational government. Or those camps in America – polar opposite of the Robbers Cave – where Protestant and Catholic kids were brought together for a whole summer of encounter and mutual understanding.
There are legends in psychology, the same as everywhere else, factoids that go unchecked, unscrutinised from one year to the next. Tales that grow in the telling, inter-generationally, scribbled down in lectures, remembered imperfectly for exams and dissertations – Little Albert, Cyril Burt, Margaret Mead’s Samoa. And, now, says Gina Perry, the Robbers Cave.
Her book, The Lost Boys, takes nothing on trust. Primary sources all the way. Not just Sherif’s publications but the film and photographic record made at the Robbers Cave, the audio recordings and, above all, the notes, all those daily observations of the boys’ behaviour that went into the final report.
Sherif himself has been dead thirty years, and his wife and co-author, Carolyn, longer still, but Perry has interviewed several of his co-workers – Herbert Kelman, for example, like Sherif an émigré, but from 1930s Vienna, and the late OJ Harvey, the first Native American to receive a PhD in psychology. She has also tracked down some of the boys themselves – men in their seventies now – to get their story. The result is a forensic unpicking of the Robbers Cave legend, the myth.
The story that emerges is one markedly different from the account we eagerly transcribed from the overhead projector. I hadn’t known, for instance, that there had been three separate Sherif camps, of which the Robbers Cave was the last. Subsequent commentators have sometimes conflated the three or implied that all three had delivered much the same result. A few have suggested that one or both of these earlier camps had to be abandoned due to the ferocious animosity that emerged. Not true, says Perry. Those earlier camps failed only in the sense that they did not deliver results that supported Sherif’s hypothesis. And the Robbers Cave succeeded because it did.
Also, for some reason, I’d assumed that Sherif had observed an existing boys’ camp and that the camp had maybe lasted a whole summer. Actually, all three camps were convened especially and the entire process – group formation, competition and reconciliation – typically lasted just twenty-one days. Not only that, the boys who took part were carefully selected. Sherif wanted them old enough to understand but young enough not to answer back. And he wanted them sufficiently similar in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, place of residence and social class that there would be nothing that might generate alternative loyalties to their newly minted groups.
Finally, I’d always imagined that Sherif worked alone, surreptitiously monitoring the boys’ behaviour in his Mr Musee alter ego. In fact, much of the ongoing, close-up observation of the boys’ behaviour was carried out by a research team led mainly by his own postgrads, who pretended to be camp counsellors: OJ Harvey, Marv Sussman, Jack White, Jim Carper ‑ all bright young things in their early twenties, exactly the type a group of schoolboys might look up to. As Perry comments, “In an experiment about group influence and power, these men seemed blind to their own role as a powerful group.”
It was Sherif and his team who insisted that the boys form groups in the first place, and that these groups have names. It was the members of the research team that organised the competitions, that kept the score, that acted as coaches and cheerleaders. It was they who established the fuzzy ethics that prevailed at all three camps – camps where the adult role models actively encouraged selfishness and amorality, or saw it and let it happen, a stance that left some boys feeling anxious or frightened, longing for home.
Above all, it was the research team that kept the on-the-scene record of what happened at the camps. These researchers were, in the main, Sherif’s own students so they had a clear career interest in keeping him sweet (“Please have the hypotheses for the given stage focal in your mind so that observations will not be hodgepodge but will be relevant to the hypothesis in question,” he advised them in written guidance). Perry hints at big mismatches between what was noted at the time and what was written up, not to mention inconsistencies between both notes and write-up and what the boys remember actually happening.
There was a bully on the Rattler team, for example. A boy called Red who liked to throw his weight around. Several of Perry’s interviewees recalled him – how he acted, the things the adults let him get away with. In the end, it was the boys themselves who sorted him out, ostracising him until he skulked back, contrite. How much of what happened at the Robbers Cave was down to Red, Perry wonders. All of the boys she interviewed remembered him and he features in some of the researchers’ notes, but he barely registers in the final write-up, which says that what happened at the Robbers Cave was what the theory said would happen, theory and actuality all square like a five-year plan.
The first camp was held in Connecticut in 1949. The boys, recruited from disadvantaged families in New Haven, obligingly formed themselves into groups: the Red Devils and the Bull Dogs. The competitive phase – baseball, tug of war and so on – appears to have gone smoothly enough although a few loners proved troublesome. But when it came to reconciliation, things stalled markedly. New Haven is a tough town and some of the boys – hard men in the making – simply didn’t do kiss and make up. Many went home bruised and bearing grudges.
Lesson learnt, the second attempt (1953, upstate New York) drew its boys exclusively from the middle class. Loners were banned. All the same, the result was an epic fail, one that Sherif disowned and, despondent, tried to expunge from the record.
Two aspects stand out. First, how hard the research team had to work in order to make things happen. But for the researchers’ cajoling there’d have been no groups. It was the research team that insisted the boys name their groups (Panthers and Pythons), who made them flags and bought them uniforms, who exhorted them to think competitively.
And still the boys resisted doggedly. That’s the other thing that stands out. These were kids raised in the Scouts and Little League, on sportsmanship and fair play, not the naked competition Sherif wanted. If they liked to win, they liked to do so fair and square, and to give their opponents their due. That’s how they’d been taught, so that was what they did even when the research team jeered and called them cissies. Sherif seethed, disdaining, in his notebook, what he called the “American sportsmanship norm”.
Exasperated at the boys’ commitment to decent values, the researchers tried to stir things up with what they called “frustration situations” – blatant agent provocateur acts of sabotage on the Panthers’ tents and property. But still no all-out war. However much the research team tried to provoke trouble, the Panthers and the Pythons, like diplomats (or hippies) in the making, managed every time to sort things out agreeably.
In the end, the only fight of any consequence came when a drunken Sherif, despondent at the lack of findings, laid into Sussman, blaming him for the poor show. It was OJ Harvey who broke it up, threatening to sort them out with a makeshift club if they didn’t quit brawling.
The Robbers Cave experiment the following year was Sherif’s last chance. His funding, from the Rockefeller Foundation, was almost gone and he had next to nothing to show for it, as least as far as his own particular theory was concerned. This time, there’d be no mistakes. Harvey, sent to select suitable boys to participate, homed in on athletes because athletes, he reckoned, would be sure to play to win. A “getting to know you” phase that had got the 1953 camp off to a bad (that is to say, friendly) start was now ditched. Instead, the boys were segregated into groups from the outset. The Rattlers took to this relatively quickly, the Eagles needed more of a push. (“Effeminate”, Harvey decided. More “cissies”.)
By way of early provocation, the research team insisted that an Eagle birthday party be celebrated brazenly and exclusively – no Rattlers allowed. When the Rattlers proved consistently better at games, the researchers let the Eagles cheat at tug of war (and eventually win the entire competition). And this time, instead of carrying out any sabotage themselves, the researchers helped and encouraged the boys to do it themselves.
It is perhaps surprising then that there was a happy, reconciliatory ending to report. Simply bringing Eagles and Rattlers together achieved nothing; a communal dinner degenerated into yet another garbage war. But getting the boys to work together for mutual benefit did the trick. When the food truck, for instance, was made to stall on the way to the Robbers Cave and only the Rattlers and Eagles giving it a collective push could get it back on the road. And when research team funds ran low and only a whip-round across both groups could pull in the necessary cash to pay for the night’s film show. At the end of the camp, no busing was required – Rattlers and Eagles travelled together, bonded, sang “Oklahoma”. Cute.
Half a century later, Hebert Kelman, who’d bailed out of the experiment after the 1953 camp, was still sceptical. For him, the research team’s interventions undermined the result. In his opinion, the Robbers Cave was more choreography than a proper test of theory – these boys were steered into conflict, then steered back out of it.
And maybe that explains what Perry sees as Sherif’s paradox ‑ a man who genuinely believed that he had made a significant contribution to social psychology, maybe even a paradigm shift, but who seems to have fought shy of publicity.
I’m wondering if perhaps he was aware of the level of scrutiny greater publicity might have brought to his work, scrutiny it might not have withstood. Only in 1969 did Sherif publicise his findings in the mainstream media, and then just once, in The Washington Post. All the same, it was enough to attract interest from Hollywood, but Sherif resisted. Renowned in psychology, he laboured in relative obscurity until his death in 1987.
I began my final year in 1984. Now that we were old hands at the psychology business, we could choose from a range of optional classes. The one I picked was called something like Psychology and the Troubles in Northern Ireland, but it was almost always referred to as “the Conflict Option”. Opting for it was faintly subversive – subversive of psychology’s hard science ambitions. And subversive of the university’s mannered political agnosticism.
On the first day, there were just six of us around the polished table in the seminar room in 1 Lennoxvale. “Denial,” said one of the lecturers. “All your mates are in denial.”
In fact, it was denial all round. Aidan, say, who sat across from me that first day, was adamant that here – Northern Ireland – was nothing special. England was “just the same” he said. “Same as here, except they all hate n—.” We flinched, then changed the subject. Talk of England turned to talk of emigration. Emigration? Wrong in every possible way. That was the consensus that first session.
“Think of the people who’ve had family killed,” said Noel – earnest, ex-integrated school. “Think of the ones who’ve had their shops bombed a dozen times. They can’t emigrate. Easy for us to say we’re getting out.”
Emigrate and you let them win.
The men of violence.
Of the many catchy soundbites that came down to us, that one especially stands out – “the men of violence (on both sides)”. By chance, I was looking, at the time, at theories of social influence, how influencers can distil some particular idea into a peppy phrase and insinuate it into the general discourse until all of a sudden everyone is saying it as if it is the plainest common sense.
There is no alternative.
There is no such thing as society.
But there were men of violence. Like demons, or medieval robber barons, periodically visiting their wickedness on the rest of us. The men of violence, as if the violence were an extraneous phenomenon; as if all the shootings and bombings were maleficia. It was remarkable how quickly the men of violence meme got taken up. How readily so many people repeated it, like a child all new-fangled with a fresh pet phrase.
I did not get the distinction between the men of violence and the stoic shopkeeper. It seemed to me that, just because you owned a shop, because you scooped a quarter of lemon bonbons into a bag for a tot, it didn’t preclude you from wearing a balaclava and carrying a gun. After the ceasefires, many of the men of violence came forward to say their bit in TV documentaries and the like. And, in the main, they came across as overwhelmingly ordinary. Some, I recall, appeared a lot more up for peace than the people who condemned them.
The psychological analysis of the situation in Northern Ireland started some time in the early seventies. Originally, the interest had been in people’s mental health. The paramilitaries, for instance, were they sickos, the Yorkshire Ripper and the Moors Murderers times ten? Maniacs. Psychopaths. And the victims, the people impacted by the conflict, they had to be on the edge, hadn’t they? Finally, the children. A whole generation growing up in the middle of violent conflict. Were we looking at a lost generation? These were genuine concerns, though by my time they’d been largely dismissed as tabloidesque.
A certain wishfulness had kicked in by then. A lot of people seemed to be willing things to be better than they were. I was one of them. On a sunny day in Botanic Gardens, you could easily believe that things might be getting better, particularly during the lull in hostilities between the hunger strikes of 1981 and the Anglo-Irish Agreement, four years later. There had been a let-up in the bombing campaign and in random sectarian assassination and, in the hiatus, some kind of normal life had tentatively begun to establish itself in the safer parts of town. Belfast was buzzing, we were advised in a series of promotional advertisements. One of them used Van Morrison’s “Bright Side of the Road” (“Let’s enjoy it while we can” – oh dear).
The latest research findings were bouncy castle bright. More children were worried about their exams than about the Troubles. More teenagers fretted about sex than sectarianism. Ask people “What are you?” and only the dysfunctional few referred to politics, religion or nationality. (Am I misremembering, or did someone work out that you were statistically more likely to die in a bomb attack in Paris than in Belfast? You were certainly more likely to die in a road accident than in an act of conflict-related violence.)
And yes, maybe so. Maybe we were not headline weird, but there was a more everyday unusualness – the salience of community, its inescapability, its ubiquity. “Telling”, for instance, that subtle, surreptitious questioning we do to find out what someone is (Catholic or Protestant); the circumlocution once we’ve rumbled them; the residential segregation. They had these other places too – Aidan was adamant – but surely not so much as we had them. Not so they were the be all and end all of all things. Or almost
Computers were on the go by then. The university was coming down with them. And all kinds of software too. There was a map you could get of the city of Belfast, a map on which the various districts were colour-coded to show which community predominated where. (Robert Fisk mentions it in his 1975 book The Point of no Return: east, Orange; west, Green; north, a bit of both; south, rich and mixed and coloured neutral yellow – like “a fine, dry sherry”, is how I think he puts it). I have it in my head that by 1984, ninety per cent of the neighbourhoods in Belfast were eighty per cent one community – Catholic or Protestant. But I cannot swear to it. It might have been the other way round – that eighty per cent of neighbourhoods were ninety per cent monocultural. Either way, it wasn’t good.
I remember looking at the 1960 Street Directory. It showed who lived where and also the job they did (“manufacturer”, my Uncle Eddie has styled himself, generously). In 1960, there is a Presbyterian church on the Falls Road; its minister lives in Andersonstown. His wife ran the tennis school at Fruithill. There are police officers living in Riverdale – constables and sergeants, RUC and Specials. Specials in Andytown, nine years shy of the war.
By the 1980s, the first of the geographical information software packages meant that map could be computerised and animated, fifty years of Belfast human geography happening before us, compressed into ten minutes. We watched it in the seminar room at 1 Lennoxvale, a patchwork of (mainly) green and orange, moving, transforming like a living thing, the colours deepening by the second as neighbourhood after neighbourhood lost its ambiguity. “There’s the interfaces,” someone said, suddenly excited, as though they’d just spotted a wonder of the world.
Bubbleland. That is how I see it now. That is where we lived, safe in the university area, that sherry-coloured strip of ambiguity. You could live in the bubble, the deeper inside it the better, far into it where the noise of bombs and gunfire was barely audible. The university was Bubbleland. And Malone, Stranmillis. Also Holywood, Bangor, Ballycastle, Hillsborough. Every garden centre, golf course and out-of-town shopping centre.
Bubbleland. That contented quietist shadow nation that kept itself to itself.
But bubbles can burst. Even the best of them might fail the odd time. At least seven people were killed in the university area while I was at Queen’s. Two students, one of them a boy from my school. Two lecturers. A judge’s daughter. A teenager out with his mates when a bomb went off. The local MP. In the library tower, the carrel desks, the lifts, the toilet walls, even the margins and endpapers of some of the books, hosted an unending graffiti dialogue, as predictable as it was depressing. In the Students’ Union General Meetings, political wannabees cut their teeth in gatherings that brought together the fractious and implacable, ever on the brink of a fist fight.
I do not know how many people were suffering mental health problems in Belfast in the mid-1980s. How many cases there were of anxiety, depression, tranquiliser addiction, alcoholism that could be directly attributed to the political situation, the conflict. How many struggled to live. But I’m pretty sure the actual numbers were many times greater than those in the official record. The greater number, I’m sure, suffered in silence. Sucked it up, as best they could. Nor have they gone away. I am told that some four and a half thousand have taken their own lives in the twenty years since the Good Friday Agreement, around a thousand more deaths than in the entire thirty-year conflict, a subtle epidemic that is leaving few untouched or untroubled and shows no sign of stopping. Only lately, in the last six months or so, have I learnt how to read a death notice – to read it deep, I mean. Between the lines. What is meant by “died suddenly at home”, “died unexpectedly”, “private funeral”.
In Amsterdam once, a good thirty years ago, I argued amicably with a Freudian over rijsttafel and Heineken. More people, I said, dutifully, died on Northern Ireland’s roads than in acts of politically motivated violence. “Sublimation,” he retorted, pointing an unsettling finger. “You are all sublimating your antagonism into risky driving.” I laughed, certain this was crazy Heineken talk. Now though I’m not so sure.
I lost track of psychology after about 1989. And I lost track also of most of the people I knew through studying it. Aidan, say. He of the N-word who thought that things were much the same in England, give or take. I know he landed a job in retail management, a fast track trainee, and that the training and the job were somewhere in Yorkshire. Is he still there? Still with the firm that took him on? He must have climbed high by now. A director surely. How did he find it? Was it really just like Northern Ireland, or did he twig that it was different?
The Robbers Cave. Was it worth it? Gina Perry here concludes it was the work of a theorist prospecting for supportive data and that everything he saw or had reported to him, he received selectively, filter turned on.
Did it tell us anything? Serta Batur, a contemporary Turkish psychologist, says not. He disputes Sherif’s legacy, says Sherif adds little to our understanding of real-world conflict and its resolution. I’m not so sure. The fact that the experiment is of limited value when it comes to testing the theory does not diminish the theory. The theory seems sound, if somewhat obvious: the culture, the context in which we grow determines every way we are. If the context is us against them, then us against them is what you get. And real groups – who’d have guessed it – cannot be switched on and off quite so readily as the kind of group confected for a twenty-one day camp. In real life, changing the “us-and-them” context takes time, generations maybe. There is no quick fix. And there might not be any fix at all.
In Memoriam Christina Walsh, 1963-2017.
Martin Tyrrell studied psychology at Queen’s University, Belfast, and at Yale. His writings on group psychology and collective identity have been published in the journal Critical Review and the anthology Political Knowledge (Routledge, 2013).