Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation: The Robbers Cave Experiment -Part 1

Group Formation and Beginnings of Conflict

The Robbers Cave Experiment is a classical social psychological research study conducted by Muzafer Sherif, O. J. Harvey, B. Jack White, William R. Hood, Carolyn W. Sherif.  They wrote a book discussing that study  (Muzafer Sherif, O. J. Harvey, B. Jack White, William R. Hood, Carolyn W. Sherif  Intergroup conflict and cooperation : the Robbers Cave experiment. Norman, Oklahoma : Institute of Group Relations, University of Oklahoma : University Book Exchange, 1961).

That book was reissued by the Wesleyan University Press in 1988 and is available for purchase from Amazon.  It is well worth reading.

The book presents extraordinarily precise information about all aspects of the study.  It’s probably more than you want to get.  So I have summarized the essential information that you need to know in order to learn about the concept of superordinate goals and how they can be used to initiate a cooperative process of conflict resolution. My hope is that we can learn from this research and use some of those ideas to consider ways to look for areas where we can find superordinate goals that can lead to cooperative work on congressional initiatives.

The Robbers Cave Experiment gets its name from Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma.  Robbers Cave State Park is the site where a group of youngsters spent two weeks in a summer camp type experience.  Sherif conducted a real-life experiment in that setting.  He and his associates placed the boys into one of two groups.  From time to time I will quote some of the information in Sherif’s book describing aspects of the study. Quoted material will be italicized.  If you want to read the entire book, click here.

Each of the two groups were “homogeneous in terms of sociocultural, economic, educational backgrounds, etc.” The study had two Stages. In Stage I in-groups were formed and allowed to develop.  In Stage 2, the groups interacted with one another.  “The two groups of subjects were kept apart during Stage 1. Until the last days of that stage, at no time did the groups have contact with one another.”

One form of activity which appealed greatly to every subject was competitive team sports, especially baseball. At one time or another, all asked about the possibility of playing baseball with another group, some even bringing this up on the bus going to camp. Since competitive sport between teams composed of members of the same group could not be considered an interdependent, cooperative activity, team play was not included in the activities of Stage 1. Delay of competitive games between teams until Stage 2 (intergroup)was accomplished with a great deal of planning through other activities, many of which were highly desirable to the boys, “work-up” games in which group members rotated positions and exhibited their skill, and the apparent lack of another team to play.

One group was called the Rattlers and the other was called the Eagles.  To get a feel for how those groups were created and developed, I will quote Sherif’s account here.