Introducing, Managing and Resolving Conflict: The Robbers Cave Experiment

This is the 5th post in our interesting psychological studies series. In the previous posts, we talked about the following psychological studies:

The Realistic Conflict Theory, also known as RCT, explains one aspect of conflict between groups. It explains how hostility arises between groups when there is a conflict of goals, and when there is competition over scarce resources. Furthermore, it sheds light on how one group develops negative feelings of discrimination and prejudice against others.

Objective of the Robbers Cave Experiment

The proponent of the Robbers Cave study is Muzafer Sherif, who wanted to prove that intergroup conflict and hostility arises when there is competition for limited resources, causing them to have negative thoughts and behavior towards the other groups.

How the Robbers Cave Experiment was done

The experiment included 22 boys, aged 11-12 who thought they were going on summer camp at Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma, USA. They had similar backgrounds – Protestants and living in two-parent households. They did not know each other prior to the study.

The boys were placed assigned into two groups – both of which are not familiar with the presence of the other. They only thought that they were the only groups in the camp. The group of experimenters posed as camp instructors. The study was then divided in three phases:

Phase 1: In-group Formation

  • The boys in their respective groups were asked to bond with each other, pursuing common goals that required collaboration and cooperation from one another

Phase 2: Competition Stage

  • The experimenters, who played the role of camp instructors, then introduced the two groups to each other, with the intention of pitting them against each other, introducing conflict and hostility
  • The experimenters launched a series of activities to bring about their competitive side – games such as tug of war and baseball where the winning group will be rewarded and the losing team would get nothing

Phase 3: Integration Stage

  • The experimenters wanted to try and see if the conflict that they built could be resolved by introducing a common goal for everyone to work with
  • To do this, the experimenters moved the two groups to a new location, and tasked them to fix a water supply issue because it had been previously tampered by vandals
  • The experimenters also made the groups agree on a movie that they wanted to watch, and to come up with ways on how to pay for it

Results of the Robbers Cave Experiment

The results of the Robbers Cave experiment were consistent with the Realistic Conflict Theory.

In the first experiment, there was no evident conflict within the groups because they knew they belonged to the same team, and had the same goals. Furthermore, they did not have anything to fight or compete for. As a result:

  • The boys developed and established attachment to their groupmates, making up their own norms and enjoying activities such as hiking and swimming
  • The groups named themselves Eagles and Rattlers, and even made shirts and flags with the group’s name stenciled in them

In the second experiment, conflict indeed was present when the two groups were pitted against each other:

  • There was name-calling from one group to another
  • The winners of the competition would brag about their successes and reinforce their victory by placing their flag on the pitch
  • The two groups refused to eat with each other

In the third experiment, when the once-conflicting groups were given the same problem to solve, they learned how to work with each other and eventually achieve peace:

  • They fixed the water supply problem together, and all contributed money for the movie that they wanted to see
  • Eventually, they were eating together at the same place, and even decided to all travel together in the same bus

Photo credit: Srikanth Jandhyala

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