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  • It was a real-life Lord of the Flies- 22  children left largely unsupervised and split  

  • into two groups. Within days prejudicemistrust, and slander had already sprung  

  • up between the two factions of children, and  it all almost ended in unimaginable tragedy.

  • In the summer of 1954 social  psychologist Muzafer Sherif  

  • transported a group of 22 boys to Robbers  Cave State Park in Oklahoma. This greatly  

  • unethical experiment would go on to inspire the  infamous book Lord of the Flies just a year later,  

  • with repercussions for the subjects  that would last their whole lives.

  • Sherif was originally born in the Ottoman  Empire prior to its collapse after World War I.  

  • His academic brilliance earned him a chance to  study psychology at the world-famous Harvard,  

  • and he would go on to become one of the  greatest psychologists of his generation.  

  • However one experiment conducted on American  school children tainted that reputation forever.

  • Having lived through the collapse of the Ottoman  Empire and the rise and fall of Nazi Germany- even  

  • spending some time in Berlin prior to the start  of the Second World War- Sherif was fascinated by  

  • human psychology, and specifically why we carry  out the behaviors that we do. However, Sherif  

  • was quickly growing frustrated at the limitations  of using animals to test out behavioral theories.  

  • One of these theories, currently just a seed  in his mind during the early 1950s, was the  

  • realistic conflict theory. Sherif wanted to find  out why groups behaved the way they did, and how  

  • prejudices, stereotypes, and outright hatred grew  out of competition between groups for resources.

  • Rats weren't intelligent enough to provide the  answers Sherif needed, so he turned to children.

  • In the summer of 1954, Sherif trucked 22 children  to Robbers Cave national park in Oklahoma. His  

  • plan was to split them into two groups and see  how competition bred inter-group conflicts.  

  • The children were all 11 year  old boys who had a Protestant,  

  • two-parent background. They were all average  or above average academic performers,  

  • and did not know each other. They  were all also carefully selected  

  • so that when split up into two groups, each  group would have a balance of common physical,  

  • mental, and social talents to try and make the  opposing sides as evenly matched as possible.

  • Each of the two groups of 11 children were  picked up by a separate bus so they would  

  • have no contact with each other, and were  kept unaware of the other group's existence  

  • during the first phase of the experimentAs the children arrived to the sectioned  

  • off area of the park assigned to Sherif for the  experiment, he set out to test two hypothesis:

  • The first was that when individuals who don't know  each other are brought together to achieve common  

  • group goals, a group structure and hierarchy with  clearly assigned roles will form. The second, much  

  • darker hypothesis was that once the two groups  were brought into competition with each other,  

  • hostile attitudes would arise in  each group versus the opposing group,  

  • and be adopted by the group as a whole.

  • However, Sherif also hoped to prove that two  opposing groups would drop all prejudices to  

  • come together in the face of a shared disaster. In  fact, he had already tried this experiment a year  

  • earlier, but met with failure- even after Sherif  stole each group's clothing, smashed their toys  

  • and tents, and framed the opposing group for it. That experiment was such a disaster that it  

  • ended with Sherif drunkenly threatening  to punch one of his research assistants,  

  • while another assistant threatened Sherif withblock of wood if he threw that punch. The children  

  • had not just refused to turn on each other, but  had actually bonded against their common enemy,  

  • and figured out that Sherif and his staff  were trying to pit them against each other.

  • This time things would be different.

  • For the first two days of the experiment  the goal was to keep the groups unaware of  

  • each other's presence and allow the boys  time to bond. This was done by presenting  

  • the children with challenges that required  cooperation and group discussion to complete,  

  • as well as group activities such as hikingswimming, and other recreational pursuits. In  

  • the previous experiment, the boys had been allowed  to meet and mix together before being separated,  

  • and Sherif believed that this was to  blame for the solidarity they showed  

  • even as he tried to instigate inter-group  hostilities. The groups ended up choosing  

  • their own names- the Rattlers and the  Eagles, and designed their own flags.

  • On day three, the groups were  finally brought together.  

  • Sherif had engineered a series of challenges  that would pit one group versus the other.  

  • This included tug-of-war, baseball, and  other competitive events. To encourage  

  • competition and up the stakes, Sherif gave away  prizes and even trophies after each challenge.  

  • The competitions continued for a series of  days, with lavish praise and prizes awarded to  

  • the winning team and no consolation prizes to the  losers. The competitive nature of the activities  

  • only served to heighten the sense of frustration  for the losing side, which in turn quickly turned  

  • into resentment for the winners- and this  was exactly what Sherif had been planning on.

  • When the groups were told of an upcoming series of  challenges, the Rattlers responded by proclaiming  

  • their absolute confidence in their ability to  win. They even took over the baseball field,  

  • forbidding any Eagles from using it so that they  could practice and improve their odds of winning.  

  • After much talk about coming up with a way to  make it clear the Eagles weren't allowed to use  

  • the field, the Rattlers ended up hosting their  flag on the field itself and warned the Eagles  

  • not to touch it. Verbal warnings escalated  into threats, much to Sherif's delight.

  • But Sherif had not just set up a series of  competitions, he was actively working to  

  • ensure that the two groups would foster true  frustration and enmity towards the other.  

  • To that end he engineered situations where one  group would profit at the expense of the other,  

  • such as delaying the arrival of one group  for lunch so that when they got there,  

  • the other group had eaten the best parts. This  slow, insidious poisoning of attitudes between  

  • the two groups went even better  than Sherif could have hoped for,  

  • and soon the two sides were calling each other  names and levying taunts. The Eagles, looking to  

  • vent their frustrations, went to the baseball  field and took down the Rattlers flag, then  

  • egged on by one of the research assistants who  provided the matches, the Eagles burned the flag.

  • For the Rattlers, this was a bridge too farand they immediately retaliated by invading  

  • the other group's cabins while they were out  for the day. The Rattlers trashed the cabins,  

  • overturning beds and throwing the contents of  each camper's luggage out all over the floor.  

  • They even resorted to theft, stealing some  of the Eagle's personal belongings. Once the  

  • Eagles discovered the sabotage and theft, they  sought out the Rattlers and fist fights ensued,  

  • which the research staff  had to quickly move to stop.

  • It's important at this point to note that the boys  or even their parents had no idea they were part  

  • of an experiment. As far as everyone knew, Sherif  and the other research assistants were nothing  

  • more than ordinary camp counselors. Even when they  directly intervened to feed the growing hostility  

  • between the two sides- such as by providing the  Eagles with matches to burn the Rattler's flag-  

  • the boys still had no idea they were being  manipulated. Unlike the year before when the  

  • campers slowly realized the research staff was  trying to pit them against each other, this time  

  • nobody on the Eagles or the Rattlers suspected  a thing. Sherif's strategy of not allowing them  

  • previous contact until they met on the field  of battle- or competition at least- had worked  

  • like a charm. With no opportunity to find common  ground, and individual group dynamics already in  

  • place after two days of bonding, each group was  thoroughly and completely hostile to the other.

  • Sherif enforced a two day cooling off period  after the physical confrontations over the  

  • burned flag and the trashed cabins. During that  time he had each group come up with lists that  

  • characterized their and the opposing groupPerhaps unsurprisingly, each boy characterized  

  • their own group in very favorable terms, while  using highly unfavorable terms to characterize  

  • the opposing group. Even with no history of  prior delinquency or bad social behavior-  

  • in fact the children had been explicitly  selected because they didn't show either  

  • of these two qualities- each group had managed  to develop a strong prejudice against the other,  

  • going so far as to directly question the moral  character of members from the opposing group.

  • Now Sherif needed to prove that the groups  could overcome their differences and work  

  • together to achieve a common goal  which threatened all. But first,  

  • he had to reconcile the groups- or at least  try to. To this end, Sherif brought the boys  

  • together in activities he hoped would bond  them, doing away with team competitive sports  

  • and activities and instead doing things like  shooting off fireworks on the 4th of July,  

  • watching a movie together, and engaging inbean-collecting contest. However, even after  

  • several days of this, neither side was showing any  true reconciliatory attitudes towards the other.

  • But Sherif still had hope in his theory, he just  needed to put the children in a situation where  

  • no one group acting alone could overcome the  challenge presented. However this challenge  

  • needed to have real consequences- at  least in the minds of the children-  

  • and couldn't be a simple game or  recreational activity. The children  

  • needed to be presented with a situation  that threatened their very survival.

  • Sherif moved the children out of their old  campsite and to a brand new one, hoping that  

  • the new environment would lessen the memory  of previous hostilities. At the new site, the  

  • children's drinking water came from a reservoir  atop a hill not far from the camp, and one day the  

  • staff blocked off the flow of water. They blamed  the loss of water onvandals”, and the children,  

  • still segregating themselves by groupsset out to find the source of the stoppage.

  • Arriving at the reservoir they found that  the faucet had been blocked, and the children  

  • dropped their differences and worked to resolve  the problem together. After almost an hour,  

  • the blockage was cleared, and the Rattlers even  allowed the Eagles, who didn't have their canteens  

  • with them, to go ahead of them and drink water  first. All seemed well, but later that evening  

  • the groups inevitably split back up into their  two opposing camps and launched a food fight.

  • Encouraged by the cooperation, Sherif then set up  a scenario where the boys needed to work together  

  • to procure a film that they wanted to watchGetting a copy of Treasure Island, the  

  • research staff informed the children that the camp  couldn't afford to pay for the film on their own,  

  • and that if they children could raise $3.50  from each group, they would cover the rest.  

  • Eventually the total sum was raised, even though  the total contributions from each member and  

  • each group was unequal- the children had come  together over their shared goal of securing a  

  • movie they very badly wanted to watch. That  night at dinner there was no food fight,  

  • and other than a few small provocations, the  children got along relatively peacefully.

  • Sherif threw subsequent challenges at the  children to prove that in the face of a  

  • common threat or goal, the groups would  come together. On the last day of camp,  

  • at both breakfast and lunch the groups had  largely disintegrated and children sat together  

  • no matter their previous affiliationsomething unthinkable just three days before.

  • In the end Sherif had proven his theory- or  had he? His research was almost immediately  

  • criticized as not just highly unethical, but  also extremely biased. First, the children  

  • had been left largely unsupervised during the  whole affair so that they could develop their  

  • independent group dynamics. Even when at one  point the Eagles loaded up socks with rocks  

  • with which to beat back the Rattlers  should they find them raiding their cabins,  

  • the staff did nothing- only stepping  in once violence actually began.

  • But Sherif's research methods were  extremely flawed- as has been noted,  

  • he didn't set out to test his theory, but to  prove it. He purposefully engineered the entire  

  • experiment to get his desired result, even taking  time to make sure that the children had time to  

  • reconcile before testing if they truly would work  together on a life-threatening superordinate goal  

  • of restoring drinking water. His interference in  providing a lighter to the Eagles so they could  

  • burn down the Rattler's flag, and sabotaging  the group's lunch times so that one group  

  • would get little food because the other had  eaten it all was also not just unethical,  

  • but highly unscientific. Lastly, the  boys all shared a common background,  

  • they were white and came from Protestant, two  parent homes. This alone was an elementary  

  • mistake and flawed methodology that  should've been obvious from the onset.

  • In the end, while there may be  some truth to the fact that groups  

  • may drop past differences to work forcommon good, or combat a common threat,  

  • real human society is far too nuanced to  be mirrored by this simplistic experiment.  

  • Given the extreme ethical issues in creatingrealistic testing of Sherif's theories though,  

  • it's likely we'll have to leave the  question to historians and philosophers.

  • Now go check out Human sleep experiment that went  horribly wrong, or click this other video instead.

It was a real-life Lord of the Flies- 22  children left largely unsupervised and split  

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    Summer posted on 2021/11/01
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