Learning from a group of 11 year olds

Jun
17
2016
by
thayne
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In 1954, twenty-two 11-year-old Protestant boys from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, of similar middleclass backgrounds, unacquainted with each other, boarded two buses bound for a 200-acre 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, and the father 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.

In 1954, twenty-two 11-year-old Protestant boys from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, of similar middleclass backgrounds, unacquainted with each other, boarded two buses bound for a 200-acre 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, and the father 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.

Us vs them
For the first several days, the camp counselors (all a team of psychologists) 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 and write their own songs, and each group was assigned separate living quarters far apart from the other. At no point during this initial period was anyone allowed to meet members of the other group.

Sherif and researchers then engineered situations designed to be highly competitive 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.

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.

Having to pull together
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. 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 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 milks for all twenty-two boys.

William Golding described his vision of an inherent “darkness of man’s heart” in Lord of the Flies: when the veneer of civilization is removed, even children are capable of turning savage.

Sherif’s study demonstrates the opposite. Schoolboys indeed 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.

The power of something bigger
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.

Economists have traditionally claimed that we do best for society by looking out for number 1. But the latest science clearly demonstrates that we all do better by choosing what is best not simply for ourselves but also all the people around us.

Every success story for resolving conflict shares one thing in common: an ability to harness the fundamental human need to move past ‘every man for himself’ to ‘we’re all in this together.’

Right now, the Democrats and the Republicans, and in the UK the Leave and the Remain campaign are like the Rattlers and the Eagles, competing furiously to win – with tragic results. (MP Jo Cox was murdered by an unstable individual, screaming ‘Britain First.’)

The only way forward in this next American election, in our American Congress, in the UK referendum and on major issues such as gun control after the Orlando tragedy is for us to realize that we are all on the same side, and then look to a few 11 year olds for the answer.

thayne

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