One of social psychology’s “classic” studies is the Robbers Cave experiment, conducted in the summer of 1954. In that study, 22 white American boys were divided into two teams at an experimental summer camp at Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. The two groups competed for a prize, and in the process developed an intense rivalry that culminated in a fight between the two groups. However, when forced to work on a common problem (of restoring water to the camp), the two groups worked together, and the animosity melted away.

The lesson was simple and powerful in post-World War II America: inter-group animosity is caused by competition for scare resources. Forcing groups to work together on common goals will eliminate the antagonism and further social goals. The Robbers Cave experiment seemed to hold the solution to ridding the world of discrimination, bigotry, and maybe even war and ethnic conflict.

Gina Perry’s book, The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave Experiment (2018) dives into the study and discusses its origin, the man behind the study, and the effect it had on the boys who unwittingly participated. It’s a probing look, and will likely remain the authoritative source on the Robbers Cave experiment for some time.

The Truth Behind Robbers Cave

Perry shows that there is much more to the story than appears in psychology textbooks — or even in Sherif’s accounts of the study. The Robbers Cave study was Sherif’s third summer camp study. An earlier study in 1949 had shown that it was possible to create strong in-group and out-group feelings in boys and then reunite the two groups. Most interesting, though, is a 1953 study that, in Sherif’s eyes, was a failure. In that summer, the cross-group friendships were too strong (even though they had formed in just a few days) for the two groups to dislike each other. If anything, the 1953 study disproved Sherif’s theory of the origins of group conflict. So, Sherif buried the study, barely mentioning it again until his death in 1988.

Burying information that contradicted his theory seems to have been a common practice for Sherif. The 1954 study is not the clean story of creating and destroying irrational hatred as groups competed for a prize and then solved a problem. Sherif and his research assistants prevented cross-group friendships, encouraged the boys’ pranks, showed favoritism towards a group (to keep the rivalry competitive and intense), and accompanied them on their pranks. The adults at Robbers Cave State Park sent the implicit message that the normal rules of society do not apply and that anti-social behavior (by the standards of the 1950s) was encouraged. In short, the adults worked hard to get the boys’ behavior to match the Sherif’s theory of group conflict.

As a result, the Robbers Cave experiment was an exercise in confirmation bias that says nothing about behavior in the real world. Perry (2018, p. 316) quotes Turkish psychologist Sertan Batur calling it “a Cold War bedtime story” who does not believe that the study has anything to say about promoting peace or reducing animosity. Perry (2018, p. 216) calls it “a choreographed enactment.” The only (living) person in the book who thinks that the Robbers Cave study is valid is Sherif’s friend and then-research assistant and student, OJ Harvey.

Inevitably, psychologists reading Perry’s book will think of the Stanford Prison Experiment. Both used “ordinary” American males put in an unusual situation to support the experimenter’s theories. Just like the Robbers Cave experiment, the Stanford Prison Experiment has come under heavy scrutiny when researchers moved beyond the experimenter’s simple, elegant account and examined the archival materials and raw data (Haslam, 2019; Le Texier, 2019). In both studies, the experimenter’s manipulation of the situation explains the subjects’ behavior much better than any theory from social psychology does, and the results are not generalizable to any real-world situation.

Reading Perry’s book, the conclusion is that the Robbers Cave study, like the Stanford Prison Experiment, is an elaborate morality play created by a social psychologist to advance their theories — instead of test them. The only thing the Robbers Cave experiment reveals is how the conditions of a replication crisis were already in place in the 1950s. Clearly, social psychology’s fall from grace is a long time coming.

Shortcomings of The Lost Boys

If Perry had limited herself to an exposé of the Robbers Cave study and Sherif’s pattern of confirmation bias and hiding inconvenient data, the book would be a triumph. However, there are three shortcomings of the book that interfere with its most important message.

The first problem with The Lost Boys is that Perry’s horizons are too broad. Parts of the book go far afield from the Robbers Cave experiment, and these parts of the book are the least interesting. A good example is when she tries to look for clues to Sherif’s theory in his life experiences, which turns into a wild goose chase through Turkey and America that produces no insights into the study, despite taking up one-third of the book.

Second, Perry also indulges too much in the storytelling of learning about Sherif and the Robbers Cave study. The reader does not need to know about Perry’s itinerary in Turkey or her train of thought as she discovered some new tidbit of information that surprised her. This style of writing distracts from the scholarly conversation and shows that the author does not trust the subject matter to serve as an entertaining topic of a book. Perry is not an anomaly in this respect; other writers in this genre engage in similar exercises of injecting themselves into the narrative (e.g. Cahalan, 2019; Dittrich, 2016).

A final flaw of The Lost Boys is its presentism. When Perry explores the ethics of the Robbers Cave study, she judges the study by current ethical standards in psychology. It clearly bothered Perry that none of the boys knew that they had been subjects in a psychological study until she told them nearly six decades later, and the parents were always kept in the dark about the real purpose of the study. Additionally, some of the actions of the adult experimenters were clearly meant to cause emotional distress and anger in children — and Sherif was thrilled when a fight broke out between the two groups. While these actions would be incredibly unethical today, it is important to remember that the study (indeed, most of Sherif’s career) pre-dates the National Research Act, which was passed 1974 and established the current research ethics system in the United States. No scientist in 1949-1954 would have thought that there was anything unethical about Sherif’s study. Condemning Sherif and his research assistants for not gathering informed consent from the parents, not debriefing the boys, toying with their emotions, and even encouraging anti-social behavior (fighting and property destruction) is to judge the experimenters for not meeting standards that they could never have been aware of — because those standards did not yet exist.

Conclusion

Despite the flaws, The Lost Boys will likely be the definitive account of the Robbers Cave study for many years. It also valuably serves as a cautionary tale for what can happen when a scientist is too in love with their own theory to notice disconfirming evidence when they see it. But had the book lacked the padding and presentism, it would have served those purposes even better.

References

Cahalan, S. (2019). The great pretender. Grand Central Publishing.

Dittrich, L. (2016). Patient H. M.: A story of memory, madness, and family secrets. Random House.

Haslam, S. A., Reicher, S. D., & Van Bavel, J. J. (2019). Rethinking the nature of cruelty: The role of identity leadership in the Stanford Prison Experiment. American Psychologist, 74(7), 809-822. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000443

Le Texier, T. (2019). Debunking the Stanford Prison Experiment. American Psychologist, 74(7), 823-839. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000401

Perry, G. (2018). The lost boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave experiment. Scribe.

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