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The Robber’s Cave Experiment

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Muzafer Sherif was a Turkish-American social psychologist who helped develop the realistic conflict or ‘group conflict’ theory in 1961. To validate his theory, which states that inner group conflicts, negative prejudices, and stereotypes are a result of competition between groups for limited resources, Sherif carried out one of his most famous experiments known as the ‘Robber’s Cave Experiment’.

This field experiment comprised two groups of 12-year-old boys, and was conducted in Robert’s Cave State Park, Oklahoma, USA. The twenty-two boys participating in the study were strangers to one another, and came from white, middle-class backgrounds. The boys were randomly assigned to one of the two groups, although neither was aware of the other’s existence. At the camp the groups were kept separate from each other, and encouraged to bond as two individual groups through the pursuit of common goals that required teamwork and cooperative discussion. The boys grew attached to their respective groups over the first phase, and each group developed its own cultures and group norms.

The second phase of the experiment, known as the ‘competition stage’, intended to bring the two groups into competition with each other in conditions that would create frustration or ‘conflict’ between them. A series of competitive games (such as baseball, tug-of-war, etc.) were organized, with a trophy being awarded to the winning team at the end of each activity. No consolation prizes were offered to the ‘losers’. This created serious divisions between the groups, especially since situations were devised wherein one group gained at the expense of the other. Initially, the conflict began with verbal expressions of prejudice, but before long transformed into more direct expressions of hostility such as burning the rival group’s flag, or ransacking the competitors’ private property within the campsite.

The researchers then gave all the boys a two day cooling-off period, and asked them to list characteristics of the two groups. Each group had higher evaluations for their own group, and characterized the other group in extremely unfavorable terms. In order to effectively ease the prejudice and tension between the two groups, Sherif then provided them with common or ‘superordinate’ goals that encouraged the two rival groups to work together in order to accomplish something that was beneficial for both. For instance, when the water supply to the camp failed, the camp staff blamed it on ‘vandals’. Upon investigating the water lines extensively, both the groups found that the tanks were full. This turned their attention to an outlet faucet which appeared to have a sack stuffed into it. Almost all the boys gathered around the faucet to try to clear it. When the water finally came through, there was collective rejoicing. One group did not mind letting the other group get a drink of water before them. The two groups faced similar goals that helped them forget their differences and come together as a team.

Muzafer Sherif’s theory has often been criticized on ethical grounds such as deception of the participants, and lack of protection from physical or psychological harm. In many ways, the realistic conflict theory also comes across as being rather limiting, since it discounts additional factors such as racial, ethnic, or economic differences, and ignores the question of identity, which even in the case of this experiment is inextricably entwined with the ‘competition for limited resources’ (the reward). The negative prejudices between the two groups developed not only because of the desire on either part to win the trophy, but also because of the inherent tendency to consider one’s own social group to be unique and superior, regarding the ‘other’ as a threat to that status and viewing them with suspicion arising from unfamiliarity.

Despite the socio-cultural homogeneity of the two groups, what seemed to be an effective technique for bringing them together was the creation of a superordinate goal. By identifying a problem lying outside the realm of collective identity or competition for resources, such as environmental problems or – in the case of the Robber’s Cave Experiment – the breakdown of food delivery trucks and water supply, conflicting groups are able to come together and solve a problem that affects everyone. Many of HasNa’s programs are guided by this notion of a superordinate goal, whether it is eco-journalism, agricultural training, or helping women in businesses. We attempt to bring together individuals from different ethnic communities and give them a tangible skill, based on the assumption that in the long run, these skills will empower them to collectively combat an issue that has an impact on everybody’s lives. Over the years we’ve identified many such superordinate goals, but there are still many that can be addressed. We would love to hear your suggestions on what other superordinate goals HasNa can address through its programs!

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