Author: Gina Perry
ISBN: e-book 9781925548303; hard copy book in the U.S.is not yet available
APA Style Citation
Perry, G. (2018). The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif`s Robbers Cave Experiment. Scribe Publications, London.
Buy This Book
The validity of many social psychology studies hasrecentlybeen questioned. The highly staged and deceptive practices of Milgram and the personal involvement, as well as the potential emotional harm, of Zimbardo’s prison studyhave garnered much attention and called into question the degree of manipulation in these studies. Thus far, Muzafer Sherif`s study at Robbers Cave, which investigated superordinate goals to overcome out-group bias and stereotypes, has avoided the spotlight for unethical and questionable practices. Gina Perry`s new book will likely change this. Fresh off of her book Behind the Shock Machine,which exposed some of the misperceptions and deception involved in the Milgram studies, Perry delves into the archives of Psychology in Akron, Ohio to examine Muzafer Sherif`s personal history and his infamous study of in-group and out-groups at Robbers Cave in Oklahoma.
Perry devotes the first third of the book to a study that was conducted in 1953 in Middle Grove, New York one year prior tothe Robbers Cave study. This nameless study seemed to be one Sherif wanted to disappear, as he did not publish or write about the results despite receiving a large grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. In a similar circumstance to the Robbers Cave study, 24 underprivileged boys were gathered to study group dynamics and the development of in-group and out-groups. The letter provided to parents to gain consent included not outright deception,but was interesting for what it did not say. The letter indicated that the 10 and 11-year-old boys would be participating in a study of child relations and social organization among children. A condition of this agreement was that parents not visit as it might “distract” the boys. As we now know from Milgram`s infamous study, the affiliation with Yale University would have provided a sense of legitimacy for the study and parents may have wanted their sons associated with a study from a highly esteemed university without asking too many questions.
In this Middle Grove study, the boys initially made friends with one another; and when divided into groups, they expressed a desire to be with their friends who were purposely placed in the opposing group (Panthers and Pythons). Sherif would remedy this in the Robbers Cave study by not allowing the two groups to get to know one another before the division into groups occurred. The camp counselors were part of Sherif`s research team, andSherif himself acted as the camp custodian. The researchers were told not to interfere with the boys and provided little guidance even when the boys clearlyneeded some direction from an adult. When the boys did not act according to what Sherif expected, he broke his own rules by ordering the counselors to raid one group`s tent to make it look like the other team had done this, even going so far as to break a young man`s ukulele. The boys did not take the bait, they suspected the camp staff rather than the other boys, andinstead of becoming divided, they encouraged the other team when they lost and wanted to share their winnings (pocket knives). When they believed they were treated unfairly in a competition, they looked to the counselors to sort things out; and when they did not intervene, the boys took that as a betrayal from the adults who they believed should reconcile the situation, this made them align with the other boys in camp against the counselors. As the study unraveled, Sherif began drinking excessively and threatened one of his research assistants. By the end of the three-week study, the boys were essentially lefton their own. When they destroyed the camp piano, there were no repercussions andthe boys seemed to sense that ahead of time. It is clear from Perry`s research that this study was not discussedbecause the outcome Sherif believed he would find never surfaced. The Robbers Cave study would be his opportunity to make certain he created the right dynamics to create divisions between the groups.
The second portion of the book is devoted to Sherif`s interesting background as a Turkish psychologist who was essentially bannedfrom returning to Turkey because of his liberal beliefs. Perry addresses the discrimination Sherif faced upon his arrival in America, as people seemed bewildered that a Turk could be a prominent academic. Perry argues that Sherif`s experience during the Turkish Revolution may be reflectedin the Robbers Cave study. When Sherif was a student, people aligned themselves either with the Nationalistic Ataturk or the Greeks and Armenians. Former friends became bitter enemies and long-time neighbors no longer trusted one another. Sherif would have seen first-hand the deep divisions that group affiliations can create.
Sherif often bristled that he was not given much attention for his Robbers Cave study, which he considered to be groundbreaking research in the field of social psychology. He often felt overshadowed by Solomon Asch. Sherif believed he was responsible for convincing Asch to pursue social psychology while the two studied together at Columbia University. Because Milgram then studied under Asch, Sherif saw himself as a "defacto" father of social psychology who was not given the credit he deserved, as he was relegatedto the outpost of Oklahoma rather than one of the eliteIvy League East Coast universities. Much correspondence at the time refers to Sherif`s incredible intellect, but also to his challenging temperament. His wife Carolyn, also a social psychologist, seemed to be able to reign in some of his difficult personality, but he was often a challenge to work with or to have on staff. Sherif was eventually diagnosedwith bipolar disorder, andafter moving to Penn State, Carolyn`s career accelerated while Muzafer`s faded.
Finally, the last portion of the book is devoted to the most famous work Sherif conducted, which examined in-group and out-group bias between the Rattlers and Eagles at Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. The 22 boys in this study were 10 and 11 years-old, from lower-middle class and working-class families in the area. The two groups of boys were located about a mile away from one another, andSherif`s team was careful to facilitate the creation of strong group alliances from the start by allowing the boys to create team identities (Rattlers and Eagles). The groups were kept separate for three days tohelp facilitate the creation of strong group affiliations. Some of the aggressive behaviors the boys exhibited may have been due to a single individual who became the leader of the Rattlers early in the study. Red was bigger than most of the boys and swore, berated, and mocked even the boys on his ownteam. He created an aggressive dynamic within the Rattlers and this inevitably transferred to the behavior between the groups as well. He would later be castinto the woods for stealing from his ownteam until he improved his behavior.
Sixteen events were scheduled over four days to pit the teams against one another.
Perry was able to track down a few of the men who had participated in the study, none of whom knew that the camp had been a testing ground for research on group dynamics. The men were interested although tentative regarding what the researchers could have been studying but remembered some events from the camp vividly. As in the earlier study, the researchers did little to intervene in the boy’s treatment of one another even when they began swearing and making fun of the boys in the camp. While interference from the researchers was not strictly forbidden as it was in the first study, the suggestion to get revenge on the other team may have been more the camp counselors’ (researchers’) idea thanthe boys. At first,the losses were blamedon other group members, rather than the opposing team. Afterwinninga baseball game, the Eagles made three cheers for the Rattlers, which differs greatly from what has originally been reported. After raids on each other’s cabins and the theft of knives used as a reward for winning the tournament, some of the boys started to break down, andSherif worried he mayhave gone too far.
During the final stage of the study, the boys were toldthat there was a water shortage and they had to work together to find the problem (this event was purposely orchestrated). Sherif believed this would begin to heal the rift between the groups. During the last event, the boys went to Arkansas for a trip to a nearby town, when one of the trucks broke down. The boys piled into one truck and seemed to overcome theirprior disdainfor one another. Thismight have been as much due to the Rattlers banning Red from the group until he behaved, as it did with the superordinate goals on which Sherif focused.
Perry argues that one cannot examine the Robbers Cave study without taking into consideration the extraordinary role of the researchers disguised as counselors. This seemingly naturalistic study was more highly manipulatedthan ever reported and the results may be due to confirmation bias, rather than a legitimate difference between groups. Sherif failed to take into account his own experiences in Turkey and how that may have impacted his perspective of the harshness that can exist between groups. Sherif did not seem to take into consideration the potential emotional suffering the boys experienced, either during or after the conclusion of the study. Sadly, Perry`s book is another hit to the credibility ofsocial psychology studies, but perhaps knowing the truth about what actuallyoccurred helps us understand human nature after all.
The British Psychological Society: The Unknown Muzafer Sherif
Simply Psychology: Robbers Cave, Realistic Conflict Theory
The Guardian: A Real-Life Lord of the Flies: The troubling legacy of the Robbers Cave experiment.
The Guardian: “Come out and Fight!” an extract from The Lost Boysby Gina Perry
Author Gina Perry’s Website
New York Times Obituary for social psychologist Muzafer Sherif
You Tube: Robber`s Cave
Psychological Figures and Concepts
Hall, G. Stanley