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Before Kid Nation, there was Robbers Cave
October 23, 2007 2:53 PM   Subscribe

"In the summer of 1954, twenty-two fifth-grade boys were taken out to a campground at Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma. [...] Ostensibly it was an unremarkable summer camp. [...] what they had really done for two and a half weeks was unwittingly take part in an elaborate and fascinating psychological experiment."

The experiment was conducted by Muzafer Sherif to test the following hypotheses:
(1) When individuals having no established relationships are brought together to interact in group activities with common goals, they produce a group structure with hierarchical statuses and roles within it.

(2) If two in-groups thus formed are brought into functional relationship under conditions of competition and group frustration, attitudes and appropriate hostile actions in relation to the out-group and its members will arise and will be standardized and shared in varying degrees by group members.
The results were published in 1961.
posted by desjardins (44 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
And yet nobody listens.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:58 PM on October 23, 2007


Damn, I was hoping for a little more Milgram.
posted by Curry at 3:08 PM on October 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


What floors me is that they fixed it. This is not the kind of experiment that is supposed to end in an "awwwww." Everybody knows that you can manipulate people into war, but it's mind-boggling that they manipulated them back out of it.

So, can't they set up a big clogged water tank in Jerusalem?
posted by darksasami at 3:12 PM on October 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


Is it legal to conduct an experiment like this today?
posted by Roger Dodger at 3:16 PM on October 23, 2007


Is it legal to conduct an experiment like this today?

With signed parental permission slips--and heavy insurance coverage and stuff, i bet it is.
posted by amberglow at 3:18 PM on October 23, 2007


whether it's right or wrong is the question to ask, i think. (i'd say wrong, of course)
posted by amberglow at 3:19 PM on October 23, 2007


So to bring opposing groups together, create a superordinate need. Like maybe defending your country against an outside invader/occupying force? No wonder Iraq is going so swimmingly.
posted by stevis at 3:21 PM on October 23, 2007


See: 'Lord of the Flies,' 'Lost,' and 'Survivor.'
posted by ericb at 3:24 PM on October 23, 2007


Oh come on, stevis. Everyone was united for at least a day or two after 9/11.
posted by desjardins at 3:24 PM on October 23, 2007


see: 'Yankees' v 'Red Sox'
posted by kuujjuarapik at 3:26 PM on October 23, 2007


It's somewhat interesting, but I wonder how valid it really is as research. What does it prove? That the kids did what the researchers expected? If they had expected something else, would they have perhaps gotten that result as well? It's just such a 'wild' experiment, in that there are so many variables and things in play in this kind of situation it's hard to extrapolate it.

Oh well.
posted by delmoi at 3:27 PM on October 23, 2007


"In the summer of 1954, twenty-two fifth-grade boys were taken out to a campground at Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma. [...] Ostensibly it was an unremarkable summer camp."...

I read this far and thought "Oh man, I wonder how long it took them to find the bodies?"
posted by Avenger at 3:32 PM on October 23, 2007 [4 favorites]


I read the FPP and expected an LSD test...
posted by wendell at 3:39 PM on October 23, 2007


I wonder if this influenced Alan Moore before he wrote Watchmen.
posted by schroedinger at 3:56 PM on October 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


see: 'Yankees' v 'Red Sox'

See 'Red Sox' vs. 'Rockies'*

*Yankees Suck!
posted by ericb at 3:58 PM on October 23, 2007


twenty-two fifth-grade boys were taken out to a campground at Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma

What would have happened if they'd been five-year-old boys? How would you survive?
posted by ericb at 4:00 PM on October 23, 2007


Interesting, but there are significant caveats for application to resolution of any serious conflict. While the boys were subdivided into two groups, they were still all members of several larger groups: boys, males, lower-middle class, Protestant, American, 1940's-born, humans. The boys weren't given much opportunity to seriously harm each other or much reason to do so. There was a clear authority present to whom any boy with a serious grievance could complain, potentially on behalf of another boy if the grievance was sufficiently serious. The authority would intervene of their own accord in anything the boys did that seemed harmful if they knew about it, and all boys knew that. The "atmosphere" of the experiment was that of a summer camp, one of the most exciting experiences in the lives of these boys. The boys knew that if any serious harm came to one of them, that boy, or all of them, would be evacuated. For example, the lack of water was an annoyance at worst; were the water supply rendered completely useless, the camp staff could have driven to a nearby town and come back with drums of water, and the boys knew that.

I'm not convinced of (or ruling out) the idea that conflict resolution for low stakes in an atmosphere of safety in the presence of an authority works at all like conflict resolution for high stakes in a "free arena" with life-threatening dangers. However given low stakes, and presence of authority, I think the findings might translate well to resolving interpersonal conflict in schools or organizations (such as corporations, churches, armies), and somewhat less to conflict in prisons.

As to the legality, there are a lot of things our ancestors did that we still benefit from but would consider illegal or immoral to repeat. This is a very minor example as such things go.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 4:13 PM on October 23, 2007 [6 favorites]


Isn't it nice when your worst suspicions about human nature are proven wrong?
posted by lekvar at 4:13 PM on October 23, 2007


I think the findings might translate well to resolving interpersonal conflict in schools or organizations (such as corporations, churches, armies), and somewhat less to conflict in prisons.

Hmm. It does translate well, come to think of it. It's a major source for the idea of team bonding exercises.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 4:15 PM on October 23, 2007


ericb: "Yankees Suck!"

True. And, having lived Boston for two years, I really like this matchup, even if it does mean having to watch helplessly while so many of my friends in Boston have their team pummelled mercilessly by an upstart team from the West.

But at the end of the day-- this day in particular-- I think we can all agree that Paciolan is really who sucks the very most. DOS attack my ass.

posted by koeselitz at 4:20 PM on October 23, 2007


Is it legal to conduct an experiment like this today?

Yup, sure is. Only these kinds of long term mentally damaging excercises are no longer labelled as "experiments" nowadays they call it "parenting".
posted by Samuel Farrow at 4:34 PM on October 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


wait what? How was this damaging again?
posted by Espoo2 at 4:37 PM on October 23, 2007


Is this the one where they hide from Injun Joe or the one where Tom suckers his friends into whitewashing the fence for him by pretending it’s fun?
posted by Smedleyman at 4:39 PM on October 23, 2007


Yes, let's get into a semantic argument on the internet.

It'll be a first!
posted by Samuel Farrow at 4:39 PM on October 23, 2007


twenty-two fifth-grade boys were taken out to a campground at Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma

They were given a conch, some sharpened sticks, and one of them was dubbed 'Piggy'.

Next season on Fox, tune in; Flies will keep you hanging from the edge of your seat.

[or, 'what ericb said.']
posted by quin at 4:50 PM on October 23, 2007


Samuel Farrow, did you actually read the experiment report? This was way more benign than any experiment I read about in college psych. It certainly sounded less damaging than several actual summer camps I went to.
posted by JZig at 5:00 PM on October 23, 2007


JZig and Espoo2: I may have taken some license with the effects of the experiment in a failed attempt at humour. For this I am truly sorry. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.

I will try harder in future

posted by Samuel Farrow at 5:08 PM on October 23, 2007


Now try it with half the food and water.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 5:48 PM on October 23, 2007


All Mefites unite to get rid of Samuel Farrow!
posted by Falconetti at 5:49 PM on October 23, 2007


(What aeschenkarnos said)
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 5:50 PM on October 23, 2007


So strange - I learned about this in class today!
posted by k8t at 6:22 PM on October 23, 2007


I still hate those Rattlers. They are sissies. I should have burned their flag when I had the chance.
posted by Slap Factory at 7:18 PM on October 23, 2007


This is why a two-party system will always fail.
posted by Eideteker at 7:31 PM on October 23, 2007


If stinkers, braggers, and sissies (and many considerably worse) can learn to live together, can't we all? Whether we are Rattlers or Eagles, can't we all just be happy campers?
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:34 PM on October 23, 2007


I still hate those Rattlers

Typical Eagle whiner. Always looking for scapegoats. Well, there's no psychologists to throw your contests now, is there? Gimme back my medal!
posted by CynicalKnight at 7:43 PM on October 23, 2007


Fascinating study, but then I'm just a dumb Okie. (and I still hate Texass)
posted by HyperBlue at 8:07 PM on October 23, 2007


Reading the details was underwhelming. After eight summers as a camp counselor, this sort of psychological 'experiment' appears remarkable only in that anyone considers these sorts of situations rare.
posted by Miko at 8:13 PM on October 23, 2007


Today, the brown-eyed people are superior. The blue-eyed people are inferior. Only the brown-eyed people get recess, because the blue-eyed people don't deserve recess. They have to work harder to keep up with the brown-eyed people.

If you put a jock, a geek, a rebel, a goth, and a princess in the same room for an afternoon, they'll make snide comments and insult the principal for an entire movie.

We Are Not Who We Are.
posted by ZachsMind at 8:21 PM on October 23, 2007 [2 favorites]


I stuck a flute in...wait, that was band camp.
posted by maxwelton at 8:27 PM on October 23, 2007


With signed parental permission slips--and heavy insurance coverage and stuff, i bet it is.

Research ethics committees see waivers as only a partial remedy for studies involving deception, since there can be no full consent. It is hard to get much past the committees these days.
posted by dreamsign at 8:32 PM on October 23, 2007


I went to an all boys summer camp that did something like this, and has done it for the last hundred years. When you arrive at the camp, you are divided into reds and greys, and that is what you remain your entire term at the summer camp. Each night there are sporting events, that use red/grey to divy up the teams. At the end of the summer there is a great relay that is a run through every activity at the camp, where a person from each team is assigned to perform a task they have to complete before the baton goes to the next part of the relay.

On top of it, each campers individual accomplishments (such as learning how to canoe, earning an excellency in wood shop, etc) in each activity is also awarded points, so the individual participation in the camping events also went towards this common goal. The end reward was that the awards banner for that summer was in the color of the team with the most points.

While they did not segregate the campus around these distinctions, it did make for some conflicts, but nothing I remember as being out of the ordinary. As a summer camp you could attend from 8 till 16, and a lot of times the longer term campers went on to become counselers (and continued to participate in events based on their color), so it was an ongoing part of your summer identity.

What was interesting is they also had totem teams, which were unique to each age group, and each age groups teams were divided by tent number, which changed each year you came. As a result you were a member of two teams, one group you were with the entire time at the camp, another that changed every year, so you ended up having friends in all groups. I don't know when they introduced the totem teams, and if it was something they did to counter any red/grey rivalry.

The camp name is winona camps, and is in Maine, and I keep forgetting to email them or go back and visit, and I loved my time there.
posted by mrzarquon at 9:22 PM on October 23, 2007


I am glad that the country FINALLY HAS TO pay attention to the Rockies! HOORAY! the point is that the red sox v. yanks doesn't team me up with anybody so leave your centrist analogies in home
posted by MNDZ at 10:48 PM on October 23, 2007


In the summer of 1954, twenty-two fifth-grade boys were taken out to a campground at Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma.

Mayor Melton?
posted by dreamsign at 1:55 AM on October 24, 2007


Green must fight Purple. Purple must fight Green. Is no other way!
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:07 AM on October 24, 2007


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