What Was the Robbers Cave Experiment in Psychology?

A Landmark Study on Group Conflict

Two teams, one wearing red shirts and one wearing yellow shirts, compete in a game of tug of war.

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The Robbers Cave experiment was a famous psychology study that looked at how conflict develops between groups. The researchers divided boys at a summer camp into two groups, and they studied how conflict developed between them. They also investigated what did and didn't work to reduce group conflict.

Key Takeaways: The Robbers Cave Study

  • The Robbers Cave experiment studied how hostilities quickly developed between two groups of boys at a summer camp.
  • The researchers were later able to reduce the tensions between the two groups by having them work towards shared goals.
  • The Robbers Cave study helps to illustrate several key ideas in psychology, including realistic conflict theory, social identity theory, and the contact hypothesis.

Overview of the Study

The Robbers Cave experiment was part of a series of studies conducted by social psychologist Muzafer Sherif and his colleagues in the 1940s and 1950s. In these studies, Sherif looked at how groups of boys at summer camps interacted with a rival group: he hypothesized that “when two groups have conflicting aims… their members will become hostile to each other even though the groups are composed of normal well-adjusted individuals.”

The participants in the study, boys who were approximately 11-12 years old, thought that they were participating in a typical summer camp, which took place at Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma in 1954. However, the campers’ parents knew that their children were actually participating in a research study, as Sherif and his colleagues had gathered extensive information on the participants (such as school records and personality test results).

The boys arrived at camp in two separate groups: for the first part of the study, they spent time with members of their own group, without knowing that the other group existed. The groups chose names (the Eagles and the Rattlers), and each group developed their own group norms and group hierarchies.

After a short period of time, the boys became aware that there was another group at camp and, upon learning of the other group, the campers group spoke negatively about the other group. At this point, the researchers began the next phase of the study: a competitive tournament between the groups, consisting of games such as baseball and tug-of-war, for which the winners would receive prizes and a trophy.

What the Researchers Found

After the Eagles and Rattlers began competing in the tournament, the relationship between the two groups quickly became tense. The groups began trading insults, and the conflict quickly spiraled. The teams each burned the other group’s team flag, and raided the other group’s cabin. The researchers also found that the group hostilities were apparent on surveys distributed to the campers: campers were asked to rate their own team and the other team on positive and negative traits, and the campers rated their own group more positively than the rival group. During this time, the researchers also noticed a change within the groups as well: the groups became more cohesive.

How Conflict Was Reduced

To determine the factors that could reduce group conflict, the researchers first brought the campers together for fun activities (such as having a meal or watching a movie together). However, this didn’t work to reduce conflict; for example, meals together devolved into food fights.

Next, Sherif and his colleagues tried having the two groups work on what psychologists call superordinate goals, goals that both groups cared about, which they had to work together to achieve. For example, the camp’s water supply was cut off (a ploy by the researchers to force the two groups to interact), and the Eagles and Rattlers worked together to fix the problem. In another instance, a truck bringing the campers food wouldn’t start (again, an incident staged by the researchers), so members of both groups pulled on a rope to pull the broken truck. These activities didn’t immediately repair the relationship between the groups (at first, the Rattlers and Eagles resumed hostilities after a superordinate goal was achieved), but working on shared goals eventually reduced conflict. The groups stopped calling each other names, perceptions of the other group (as measured by the researchers’ surveys) improved, and friendships even began to form with members of the other group. By the end of camp, some of the campers requested that everyone (from both groups) take the bus home together, and one group bought beverages for the other group on the ride home.

Realistic Conflict Theory

The Robbers Cave experiment has often been used to illustrate realistic conflict theory (also called realistic group conflict theory), the idea that group conflict can result from competition over resources (whether those resources are tangible or intangible). In particular, hostilities are hypothesized to occur when the groups believe that the resource they’re competing for is in limited supply. At Robbers Cave, for example, the boys were competing for prizes, a trophy, and bragging rights. Since the tournament was set up in a way that it was impossible for both teams to win, realistic conflict theory would suggest that this competition led to the conflicts between the Eagles and Rattlers.

However, the Robbers Cave study also shows that conflict can occur in the absence of a competition for resources, as the boys began speaking negatively about the other group even before the researchers introduced the tournament. In other words, as social psychologist Donelson Forsyth explains, the Robbers Cave study also demonstrates how readily people engage in social categorization, or dividing themselves into an ingroup and an outgroup.

Critiques of the Study

While Sherif’s Robbers Cave experiment is considered a landmark study in social psychology, some researchers have critiqued Sherif’s methods. For example, some, including writer Gina Perry, have suggested that not enough attention has been paid to the role of the researchers (who posed as camp staff) in the creation of group hostilities. Since the researchers usually refrained from intervening in the conflict, the campers may have assumed that fighting with the other group was condoned. Perry also points out that there are potential ethical issues with the Robbers Cave study as well: the children did not know they were in a study, and, in fact, many did not realize that they had been in a study until Perry contacted them decades later to ask them about their experience.

Another potential caveat to the Robbers Cave study is that one of Sherif’s earlier studies had a very different result. When Sherif and his colleagues conducted a similar summer camp study in 1953, the researchers were not successfully able to create group conflict (and, while the researchers were in the process of trying to incite hostilities between the groups, the campers figured out what the researchers were trying to do).

What Robbers Cave Teaches Us About Human Behavior

Psychologists Michael Platow and John Hunter connect Sherif’s study to social psychology’s social identity theory: the theory that being part of a group has powerful effects on people’s identities and behaviors. Researchers studying social identity have found that people categorize themselves as members of social groups (as the members of the Eagles and Rattlers did), and that these group memberships can lead people to behave in discriminatory and hostile ways towards outgroup members. However, the Robbers Cave study also shows that conflict isn’t inevitable or intractable, as the researchers were eventually able to reduce tensions between the two groups.

The Robbers Cave experiment also allows us to evaluate social psychology’s contact hypothesis. According to the contact hypothesis, prejudice and group conflict can be reduced if members of the two groups spend time with one another, and that contact between groups is especially likely to reduce conflict if certain conditions are met. In the Robbers Cave study, the researchers found that simply bringing the groups together for fun activities was not enough to reduce conflict. However, conflict was successfully reduced when the groups worked together on common goals—and, according to the contact hypothesis, having common goals is one of the conditions that makes it more likely that conflict between the groups will be reduced. In other words, the Robbers Cave study suggests it’s not always enough for groups in conflict to spend time together: instead, the key may be to find a way for the two groups to work together.

Sources and Additional Reading