The power of a 'supergroup'

Lynne McTaggart

In 1954, 22 lower middle class 11-year-old Protestant boys from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma of similar lower middleclass backgrounds, unacquainted with each other and carefully screened for psychological stability and adjustment, 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, later credited with founding the discipline of social psychology.  What the boys did not know, in these days before informed consent, was that they were to about to become guinea pigs in one of the most fascinating and beloved psychological studies of group behavior in history.
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 chose a name — the Rattlers and the Eagles; each created their group’s own ‘flags’, designated places in the camp as theirs; wrote songs; chose practices and even particular modes of behavior as exclusively ‘theirs’.
Within a few days, both the Rattlers and the Eagles had firmly congealed as a group, with their own social hierarchies and leaders; each, as psychologists would put it, had firmly created an  ‘in-group’.   The Rattlers and Eagles were assigned separate living quarters far apart from each other. At no point during this initial bonding period were they allowed to meet any members of the other group.
Engineered conflict
It was now time to test the effect of such intense ‘in group’ bonding on outsiders.  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 — with baseball, other competitive games like tug of war, tent pitching, cabin inspection, and skits and songs culminating with a treasure hunt over four days.  A trophy, medals and 11 four-bladed Swiss Army-style knives were held up as the much coveted prizes to the winning team.
Before the competition had even started, the boys had laid claim to certain sections of the playing fields; the Rattlers placed their flag on the field backstop and the Eagles attached their flag to a pole, announcing it would never touch the ground.  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 also ensured the two teams were constantly made aware of the closeness of the race.  Good sportsmanship gave way to name-calling, invectives and such discrimination between groups that the Rattlers and Eagles refused to have virtually anything to do with each other outside of the tournament.   
Out of control
After a while, the experimenters didn’t have to engineer anything. Decking themselves out commando-style, the Rattlers raided the Eagles cabin, turning over beds and ripping mosquito netting.  Armed with sticks and bats, the Eagles retaliated with interest, throwing allthe Rattlers’ belongings in a heap in the center of the cabin.  The Rattlers posted their own flags on everything that was ‘theirs’ — their cabin, the swimming hole, the upper camp, even the baseball diamond. The Rattlers tore up the Eagles’ flags; the Eagles burned the Rattler’s flags.
On the day the Eagles won the tournament, the Rattlers raided and stole the prize knives. By this time every boy refused even to eat when any member of the opposing group was present in the same food hall. Sherif and his team once found the two groups lined up across from each other, as if ‘separated by an invisible line’, which shortly degenerated into a fist fight that had to be broken up.
Having escalated such fierce prejudice between the groups, the Sherifs then experimented with methods of positive discrimination.  The counselors set up a series of activities that would encourage the two groups to co-mingle and get to know each other: bean collecting, watching a movie, shooting firecrackers on the Fourth of July. 
Nevertheless, all attempts at social engineering failed; no amount of basic contact between the boys seemed to lessen the tension, and on several occasions members of the Rattlers and Eagles even got into a food fight.
Camp crises
The Sherifs then hit upon the idea of creating a series of crises in the camp that could not be solved without the resources and participation of all of the individuals 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 — the work of vandals, a camp counselor told them — 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 were then asked to help move a truck carrying food for both groups that had got stuck in a rut.
As the boys got involved in these kinds of large goals, the ice between them began to thaw.  During the water incident, 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 working together to finance a movie, they 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.  At a stop on the way, the leader of the Rattlers spent all of the $5 he’d won on a bean toss contest on malted milks for all 22 boys.
Walls and bridges
Discrimination doesn’t require conflict or indeed much besides the flimsiest designation of otherness.  As American psychologist Henri Taifel demonstrated in a study, when a batch of adolescent boys were simply told that certain others had scored the same score as them at a computer task, they began to band together and discriminate against those who hadn’t achieved the same score.
Difference of any sort that gets emphasized is enough to create a ‘minimal group’ and, consequently, an outgroup. All it takes is any kind of a wall, no matter how flimsy.
William Golding described what he saw as the 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. School boys indeed are fully capable of turning cruel and bully boy toward each 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. 
Maybe we adults can take some lessons from these 11 year olds about the power of a ‘supergroup’ and also the power of reaching across the aisle.

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Lynne McTaggart

Lynne McTaggart is an award-winning journalist and the author of seven books, including the worldwide international bestsellers The Power of Eight, The Field, The Intention Experiment and The Bond, all considered seminal books of the New Science and now translated into some 30 languages.

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35 comments on “The power of a 'supergroup'”

  1. Excellent read! This behavior was so evident following 9/11/2001... Too bad that it takes a sense of common distress to unite.

  2. What a blessing you are. As a former scout leader I know the effect and perspective realized from these arranged experiments. It exposes the myth of equating education with training. Thank you and blessings.

  3. I'm working on a Mental Health project in Canada aimed at stigma removal. Some opinion indicates those without first-hand experience will never understand mental illness. Some feel that those closest: family and friends, understand and demonstrate compassion. The idea of a larger threat that all in society could recognize and rally against is intriguing.

  4. While it may take a common sense of distress to unite--it only points to the fact that our largest fears are our best teachers. Whatever 'distress' is observed (conflict) can be used to advantage. To improve our lives, to get closer to the inherent love we are, the energy of conflict is what needs attention. Feel it fully, then tell the truth about it. I am the presence and power of God creating this. I now take back my power from it and transform it into the love I Am.

  5. This describes what is happening today too! Everytime Mamma Gaia shifts or blows off steam, humanity en masse set aside our separation thinking and come together as one to deal with the crisis. I'd rather we learned to pull together without needing crisis, but isn't it Divine that if we don't step into Unity consciousness voluntarily we're wired with a fail safe mechanism?

  6. Agree Anne - the crisis is there - our earth needs us to work together like never before and overcome all differences. Doing this will be difficult and amazing. Beautiful film states the many crisis facing us and Gaia + how we come together in positive (and fun) actions:
    If link doesn't work search 'home' in you tube. Can be seen in many languages.
    xxx Love, peace hope and happiness xxx

  7. Is it not 'childish' for nations to think they are 'right' and the 'other' wrong?
    Hmmm, perhaps it is global warming that will pull we homo sapiens together for a lasting world peace and 'brotherly love'.

  8. Would it not be nice IF our houses of Congress could learn this lesson. If the Republicans and the Democrats would realize they are acting like these "competing teens" and they realized they did have a common purpose that could only be done with mutual respect and cooperation, it could be amazing what could be achieved for the benefit of America.

  9. And we are amazed at the violence that erupts at sporting events! It's amazing the Olympics ever ends without major issues.
    Once again, this simply reinforces what Eckart Tolle describes in New Earth in relation to Ego and egoic thinking! When I read it, and realized I had been living all my life wrapped up in ego, I immediately identified that as the ultimate "illusion!"
    How easily we fall into this, and the deliberate training we receive on a daily basis to keep us there! Those who are conscious and aware have much to be grateful for, and much to intention! The "shift" is alive and growing.

  10. this is while false flag terror attacks (false flag attacks are engineered calamities created by one faction to cause a particular outcome) are so effective at manipulating large populations of people getting behind the government's plans at war or taking away more of our freedoms for higher "security".
    This is why we must be ever vigilant about 'who benefits'.
    Thus the latin phrase:
    "cui bono"
    I'm sorry that's what I took from this blog post because there is a lot of positive things to take away but I wanted to point out the not so obvious to help make a difference because Obama has just played the terror "Nuke" card and we may see terrible things that are meant to scare us into getting behind the government's agenda much like 9/11's false flag terror attack that was engineered by shadow government and implemented to usher in the Patriot act (please read this act if you haven't yet) and also to have war in the middle east.
    It's all fake people, let's not let this happen again! They are using our human nature against us and we must turn toward higher consciousness but first we must become aware and educated.
    I love you all!

  11. I must disagree with the conclusion: "when the veneer of civilization is removed, even children are capable of turning savage." It was the "civilization" imposed by the Sherifs that created the conflict; no different than the "civilizations" imposed today or in the past.

  12. This is so interesting. I believe we're seeing this play out in the so-called "flash mob" incidents in Philadelphia, Kansas City, and elsewhere. Here in Kansas City, teens and pre-teens quickly organized via social networking to gather at the Country Club Plaza, an upscale open-air shopping and entertainment district. Over 900 youths turned out last weekend and quickly turned ugly: diners were mugged on patios, passersby thrown into fountains, women groped, one girl was shot in the head, a young man bashed in the head with a pipe. Shops and restaurants closed early and quickly, and police were called in to disperse the kids with pepper spray. I'm gathering some people to meditate on peace in this KC district (and others) this weekend, as the violence and crowds have intensified over the past couple of weekends.

  13. COSMO.....
    RIGHT=-ON , My sentiments echo'ed by you spot-on. ...-beware Qui Bono...
    esp. false flag herd round-up's 4 the new world order stuff!

  14. PS. i tend to say Don't let 'em use our 'good nature against us"!
    Beare of the rallying cry of false flag attacts.
    do some reasearch=operation it...better yet, leave no paper trail... use google keeps records of YOUR searches for LIFE.

  15. This goes to show that divisive religion(s) are not helping the world in crises. Instead of focusing on their commonalities, they chose to focus on their differences, thus setting up a competing atmosphere that poisons peace and harmony of unity.

  16. Children learn hate from aldult. They learn by observing and then, by doing and repeating what they see and are told, what it is expected from them. When separated in "groups" they will do whatever it takes to ensure that "their group" come first (one of the Waslow Principle: be accepted by a group, be a part of a group). One know, that come "survival" then, it's something else, because of the primitive instinct we all have, we, like everybody else want to live and will do whatever it takes to live and survive. That is what those young kids did. they put aside any thought of "competition" in order to get that water running. And they did. I just hope that once they had the "Lesson learned" they put it in practice in an everyday practice.

  17. What is fascinating about this experiment is although the two groups began to act and react exactly as expected, based on our understanding of human nature, they were both being manipulated by a higher power.
    The outcomes of the group interactions were a result of the ‘intention’ of those running the experiment.
    Without shouting conspiracy theory from the rooftop, it does behoove those who are in control of the wealth of our planet to keep us in strife and disaccord through such separatist concepts as religion and country borders.
    “One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all” was a dream of the pioneers of America.
    They were trying to teach us something through this esoteric wisdom, but 234 years of separatism has made living as ‘one nation’ impossible.
    What would happen to the collective intention of the world if these lines of separation could be removed? Or better yet, what if we all stood up and took a look around to see who is manipulating us and for what reasons?
    Are you just a victim of being human? Or a pawn in a much bigger game…
    Write On!

  18. Thank you. A great read. We humans often forget that we are part of a large plan and in actual we are all one. The experiment clearly demonstrates that our collective energy can move any obstacles in our path and that we DO have inbuilt instintcs to work together! so what are we waiting for? Lets work together to make this world a better place for everyone.. Cheers & God bless us all

  19. I am going to be the devil's advocate here. The study failed to include the intentions of the Sherifs. In the Intention Experiment, we are knowingly working with energy in a *positive* way to produce positive results. We believe in the power of thought; otherwise we would not be working with it. It has been well documented that doctors attitudes affect the outcome for their patients without the doctors expressing their thoughts verbally. The wrong conclusions as to basic human nature were drawn from this experiment. It is intention, not nature, that effects outcomes. I am sure people like Gary Schwartz and Rupert Sheldrake would respond along these lines. There were variables (e.g. the lies told by the Sherifs) in this experiment that were not taken into account.

  20. Experiments? Children everywhere in rich or poor enviroments naturally form themselves into gangs. I use to think of it as grouping. Just living on different blocks is enough reason to form opposing teams. Giving them a common cause to unite and work together forming a larger structure to support their identifities is exactly the way our society operates. It is not exactly rocket science. Just open one 's eyes to the world we live in.

  21. Opening our eyes to the world we live in still leaves us open to very different interpretations of what we se, Dale. Children are exposed to many intangible influences, whether in rich or poor communities. For one thing, there are the energies of thought, which this discussion should be taking into account. Even disregarding intention, there is the physiological effect of 'mirror neurons' in the brain. Before we start blaming the kids, it would be worthwhile to read up on the research on this. There have also been studies showing the vastly different outcomes for students of matching abilities when teachers were given either positive or negative projections at the beginning of they year on their chances of success. A Buddhist maxim says, "You have come here to find what you already have." We ought to be very careful as to what we believe the other person "already has."

  22. Why is the Olympic Spirit different than just Sport trying to win by any means, has to do with the Olympic Organization and its goals. All athletes who have competed at an Olympiad can tell you how different it is from a regular competition. So when we look at all humanity as us then we start to comprehend what been civilized mean and how living with love toward all creation will finally make the human race to evolve.

  23. The amazing movie mentioned by Pauline above really points out how what Lynne is doing is gaining momentum at exactly the right time. We need to use our mind and intention for the good of all....... and soon. Here's the website again. The movies is called HOME.

  24. very interesting..I think people who look alike and have the common experiences are the ones who are in most conflict with each other,,just look round the's a though they are siblings and competing for mother's love and the ones who don't get enough will be unable to survive..

  25. Great blog Lynne! Funny I thought of William Goldings Lord of the flies as soon as I started reading the story. One of my favs!
    I thought the story was really appropriate since we live in a place where polarization is systemic. We are all holding our breath in South Africa right now waiting to see which way the cookie's going to crumble.
    One can see everyone's comment on your article playing out in the machinations of the consciousness of our nation. All the fear, all the hope, all the suspicion, all of the recrimination, all the reconciliation, etc. that common people and power brokers alike bring to the table everyday. In spite of the fear and the uncertainty, I thank God I am alive and living in this incredible country where we are working so closely and passionately with with our collective psyche dissolving this preposterous illusion we have generated of ourselves.

  26. Great article! It just reinforces my belief that any form of competition is divisive - even organised religion, which purports to be spiritual, but merely encourages 'otherness'...

  27. Yes - the heart of the problem clearly shown. Most adults cant progress beyond the mind of a child.
    So what else is new?

  28. Ditto to all the "greats" and "goods" mentioned in previous comments..... Lynn's work continues to inspire and motivate..... Dave

  29. This shows the awesome power of manipulation, how people are forced to believe they have thoughts pointing in a certain direction, i.e. against something or other group, and believing this, they create the corresponding emotion. Sadly, too often action follows. We see this in the world all around us at the moment.
    The insidious thing about this manipulation is that we are made to feel it's 'natural', like that's just how people are, and the best we can do is learn to cope with it. But we know now this is totally false.
    This programming is mostly, although not exclusively done through language. Take for example the word foreigner, the very word implies something different, strange, alien. if you come from another country you may be diffferent, maybe you're not be ok. There are shade aand streams of subtly running through our words. Even in the country you were born into you ccan be disignated as different. 'Competition' is another such word.
    Each of us has bias programmed in (I call them scripts) from childhood. If someone thinks they haven't any they probably haven't examined their minds thoroughly. But I find that just by sseeing the very artificial nature of them all prejudices dissolve.
    One of the first things a child learns as a baby is to distinguish between 'me and not me'. This is then extended, exagerated, and manipulated to designate multiple fields of difference.
    Sherif shows just how the human mind can be manipulated. But the greatest contribution he made is in demonstrating how easily the process can be reversed. And that is the work the world needs doing right now.

  30. Lynne, you stated that the boys were carefully screened for psychological stability and adjustment. Were they reexamined after the study to see whether their stability and adjustment were affected in a positive or negative way? Were they made aware of the study afterwards? If so, was their reaction in any way similar to the way various people in our current culture respond when they feel they've been involved in a similar manipulation on the part of people in power who see it advantageous to manufacture dissent? Enjoyed reading about the study.

  31. dear lynn,
    please type in --
    -- into google search.
    when a group of humans are in acute emotional distress , and come out in one piece, against all expectations --
    --they develop bonds much more stronger than even mother- son relationship, bonds of religion, race , language etc.
    capt ajit vadakayil

  32. Its such as you learn my mind! You seem to grasp so much approximately this, like you wrote the guide in it or something. I believe that you simply could do with some p.c. to power the message house a little bit, but instead of that, this is wonderful blog. An excellent read. I will definitely be back.

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