The boys were unwittingly the star cast in a classic experiment conducted in the 1950s on building positive inter group relations.
TAKE 22 white, middle-class, 11 year-old boys who did not know each other, send them on a 'summer camp experience' at the Robber's Cave State Park in Oklahoma (USA), and what do you get? A remake of William Golding's 'Lord of the Flies'? No. Rather, a powerful lesson in peace building.
The boys were unwittingly the star cast in a classic experiment conducted in the 1950s on building positive inter group relations, conducted by psychologist Muzafer Sherif. Although they were unaware of it, Sherif had divided the boys into two groups of 11 that were approximately equal in athletic ability and camping experience. He arranged experiences that would amplify, and then resolve, destructive conflict between them. The study was conducted in 3 stages of roughly 1 week each.
In the first stage, each group lived in its own cabin and had no knowledge of the other's presence in the park. Each group developed its own swimming hole and hideouts and co-operated in activities such as pitching tents, preparing meals, hiking and treasure hunts. During this stage, each spontaneously developed its own rules, leadership and identity. One group called itself the 'Rattlers', the other boys dubbed themselves the 'Eagles'.
us and them
Near the end of this stage, each was made aware of the other's presence in the camp, hearing the other's voices or seeing cups left behind. Strong territorial reactions, such as 'they'd better not be in our swimming hole', were the result. There was an immediate division between 'us' and 'them'.
By design, Stage Two amplified the competition between the young 'warriors'. The staff announced a series of contests, including baseball games, tugs-of war and counsellor-judged events such as cabin inspections. The scoring was manipulated to keep the two teams close, thereby heightening the sense of competition. The two groups began eating together in a common mess hall, where the tournament's grand prize (a trophy and 11 medals and four bladed knives for individual members of the winning team) was on display for all to see.
Good sportsmanship quickly deteriorated to name-calling during the first baseball game and then in the mess-hall. Following their first loss the dejected Eagles burned the Rattlers' flag, with the group's leader proclaiming 'you can tell those guys I did it ... I'll fight 'em'. The Eagle flag was burned in retaliation the next day. Fighting erupted and the counsellors intervened.
Tensions increased further when the Eagles won the second tug-of-war through a strategy of sitting down and digging in their heels. Judging this unfair, the Rattlers launched a commando style raid on the Eagles' cabin that night. The following morning, the Eagles took revenge on the Rattlers' cabin; then, fearing reprisals, they began to store rocks to stone their new enemies. Once again, the staff intervened.
Skirmishes continued throughout the tournament, which the Eagles eventually won. The defeated Rattlers immediately raided the other group's cabin and stole the prized knives and medals, provoking further fighting. Hostilities at this point ran extremely high.
Stage Three aimed at resolving the conflict. Initially, non-competitive activities were attempted, such as watching movies while eating together in the mess hall. This contact failed. The two groups stayed separated, jeered at each other or engaged in food fights.
To build peace, it was necessary to induce co-operation towards shared goals. A series of urgent problems was devised, which the boys could solve only by working together. The camp's water was cut, for example, and staff announced a possible leak in the supply pipe. The boys had to inspect the 1.6km pipe, and finally discovered a clogged valve at the tank. They rejoiced together when the problem had been fixed. On another occasion, they had to join forces to start a truck which had broken down. By the time the third stage had ended the boys had become reconciled, and even asked to go back to the city on the same bus.
In interpreting these results, one must be careful to note that no single experiment can establish by itself a principle of broad applicability. Furthermore, the conditions of Sherif's experiment differed markedly from the conflict-torn situations in the real world. The inescapable conclusion, however, is that co-operation on shared goals is of vital importance in resolving conflict peacefully.
This conclusion has far-reaching implications for building a culture of peace. Simply stopping the fighting or bringing hostile groups together is not enough. Rather, co-operation must be nourished at diverse levels in the social system, building the sense of positive interdependence that lies at the heart of a culture of peace.