I was watching the BBC news the other day, which featured a man in his nineties, who’d just written his second novel 50 years after the first one. Naturally, the BBC presenters were interested in why he felt compelled, all these years later, to write again.
The author had set the book in 1940 in Britain, when the country was faced on all sides by a powerful enemy and was ill-prepared for war. He’d lived through it all, and decided that before he died it was vital that he relate, on record, what it was like at that time.
So what was it like, the presenters asked.
‘Fantastic,’ he replied.
Despite the great uncertainty, great fear and threat of war, he said, ‘the entire country had come together for a common cause.’
At some point, when they’d run out of time, the BBC presenter wanted to wind things up, but the 90-year-old stopped him, and said, I’m sorry, I just have to say this.’
Then, looking at the camera, he spoke about how terribly divided the country was right now, and if they could just find a common cause to rally behind, as his generation had, modern Britain would be united again.
Whenever I think of rallying causes, I think of that classic study of 1954, when twenty-two 11-year-old middle-class boys from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, unacquainted with each other and carefully screened for psychological stability, boarded two buses bound for a Boy Scouts of America summer camp near Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma.
Observing all of this from his perspective as camp “janitor” was the architect of the study, Muzafer Sherif, a Turkish-born Harvard graduate, later credited with founding the discipline of social psychology.
The boys did not know, in these days before informed consent, that they were about to become guinea pigs in one of the most fascinating and beloved psychological studies of group behavior of all time.
Two polarized groups
For the first several days, the camp counselors (all a team of psychologists, including Sherif’s wife) encouraged each group to engage in activities to solidify their bond with members of their own group.
Each group was told to choose a name (they selected the “Rattlers” and the “Eagles”), create their group’s own “flags,” designate places in the camp as theirs, write their own songs, and design practices and particular modes of behavior as exclusively “theirs.” Each group was assigned separate living quarters far apart from the other, and at no point during this initial period was anyone allowed to meet members of the other group.
In the next phase of the study, Sherif and researchers engineered situations designed to be highly competitive and frustrating in order to deliberately bring the two groups in conflict.
They announced a general tournament of sports and other competitive games, with a trophy, medals and eleven four-bladed Swiss Army-style knives as the much-coveted prize for the winning team. Finally, after a day spent practicing, both groups finally laid eyes on the already-loathed other.
Over the four days of the competition, the staff manipulated the scorekeeping so that the scores remained neck and neck, and ensured that the two teams were constantly made aware of the closeness of the race. Good sportsmanship gave way to name-calling, invectives, and refusal by every boy even to eat when a member of the other group was present in the same food hall.
After a while, the experimenters didn’t have to stoke the prejudice between groups. Decking themselves out commando-style, the Rattlers raided the Eagles cabin, turning over beds and ripping mosquito netting. The Eagles retaliated with interest; armed with sticks and bats, they threw all the Rattlers’ belongings in a heap in the center of the cabin. Each team destroyed the other team’s flags.
On the day the Eagles won the tournament, the Rattlers raided and stole the prize knives. The growing animosity ended in a fierce fistfight that the counselors had to break up.
Having escalated such fierce prejudice between the groups, the Sherifs then experimented with activities to encourage the groups to co-mingle. But no amount of jolly, getting-to-know-you evenings, movie nights, or festivities on the Fourth of July seemed to lessen the tension.
The Sherifs then created a series of crises in the camp that could not be solved without the resources and participation of all of the boys within both groups.
A few common crises
After the drinking water suddenly dried up and the boys discovered a large sack stuffed into an outlet faucet of the water reservoir, both groups had to work together to figure out how to clear it.
The Rattlers and Eagles were also enlisted to pull a rope together in order to clear a partly cut through a tree that may have posed a danger and then to help with a truck carrying food for both groups that had got stuck in a rut.
Once the water began flowing again, the Rattlers allowed the Eagles to drink first from the fountain, because they hadn’t brought their canteens and were thirstier.
After they’d worked together to finance a movie, the Sherifs noticed the boys began eating together in the mess hall, with Rattlers freely mixing with Eagles.
On the final day of camp, the boys unanimously voted to travel together on the same bus.
Rattlers and Eagles sat together, arms draped around each other.
At a stop on the way, the leader of the Rattlers spent the $5 he’d won on a bean-toss contest on malted milk for all twenty-two boys.
Schoolboys like members of competing political parties are fully capable of turning cruel and bullying toward each other if they are placed in opposing groups and forced to compete over scarce resources.
But when the Robbers Cave children were given a common goal and purpose – larger than themselves and their group – they readily put aside their differences to work together cooperatively as a superorganism.
Psychologists call this a superordinate goal – a goal only achieved by large cooperative teamwork of two or more people. Engaging in sharing and teamwork tends to transcend differences, because it emphasizes the very heart of humanity — we are all in this together. And if we are all in this together we are no longer competing for scarce resources.
Now is the time for us in both Britain and America to find a single common cause – some sort of truck stuck in a ditch, so to speak, to rally around – and watch how we begin to connect with the ‘enemy.’
It doesn’t take a war to find a common cause to unite us.
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