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Muzafer Sherif on Robbers Cave Experiment - Dictionary of Arguments

Haslam I 146
Robbers Cave Experiment/Sherif: to understand intergroup phenomena (i.e., the ways that groups behave towards each other) [Sherif] believed that it was critical to take an intergroup approach. To be sure, being a psychologist, he saw the individual’s ‘perception of the social world’, coupled with the individual’s ‘learning about it’ and appraisals and evaluations of it, as a key focus of his analysis (Sherif and Sherif, 1969(1): 8).
Haslam I 149
Robbers Cave Experiment: was the third of three experiments, later called the „Boys’ Camp Studies“. The first phase in all three studies was one of ingroup formation prior to any subsequent intergroup interactions. In the first two days of Experiments 1 and 2, all boys were given the opportunity to develop spontaneous, interpersonal friendships. After this period, however, the experimenters systematically assigned the boys to two distinct categories. These cut across any friendships they had initially formed, so that friends were now separated. This allowed the researchers to observe the emergence of group processes in the absence of any pre-existing ties. Experiment 3 brought two sets of boys to the research camp sites and kept them apart for all of Phase 1. The boys engaged in a series of activities that required interdependent interactions and shared goals.
Haslam I 150
Phase 1: here the experimenters tried to limit competition within the forming groups. The boys differentiated themselves into the roles of leaders and followers, and norms of behavior emerged. Boys who transgressed these norms were punished in various ways.
Phase 2: after having established two distinct groups, Sherif wanted to study the emergence of negative intergroup attitudes and behaviors.
Behavior: Question: are intergroup attitudes and behaviours –like prejudice and discrimination – shaped by specific, material intergroup relations?
Haslam I 151
First study (1954): in this study the boys did not initially know of the existence of the other group. It was observed that negative attitudes were expressed even before actual intergroup contact. (Sherif et al. 1961(2): 94-95). The boys also expressed highly prejudicial attitudes. When the two groups were finally brought together, Sherif did so with the specific goal of examining the role of intergroup competition for limited and valued resources. He predicted that intergroup competition of this nature would lead to intergroup hostilities, negative intergroup stereotypes and enhanced within-group solidarity. Across all of these competitions, the original groups that developed during Phase 1 were maintained. As the competition progressed, increasingly negative intergroup attitudes were expressed.
Haslam I 152
Intergroup competition also led to changes in intragroup relations. After the broader social context changed in Phase 2, so too did this lead to changes in role structures. E. g., a Phase 1 leader fell from power during the Phase 2 when he expressed reluctance in the outgroup competition. The qualities required of a leader varied dramatically as a function of changes in social context.
Phase 3: Reduction of intergroup conflict: In the 1949 field experiment, a de-escalation in intergroup enmity was observed when the two groups combined to compete against an outside baseball team.
Sherif et al. 1st thesis: intergroup collaboration against a third party (‘a common enemy’) might be a way to promote intergroup harmony among the original two enemies.
Haslam I 153
Robbers cave experiment: (the experiment took place in 1954) here the conflict reduction was examined systematically. It turned out that intergroup contact without competition (e.g., watching movies) was ineffective in reducing hostility. (Sherif et al. 1961(2): 209).
2nd thesis: negative intergroup attitudes and behaviours would be reduced, if not eliminated, under conditions in which the two groups were required to cooperate for the attainment of a mutually valued, superordinate goal. Importantly for Sherif, attainment of this goal could not be ‘achieved by the efforts of one group alone’ (Sherif et al., 1961(2): 52).
Result: the cooperative tasks reduced hostilities and also the intergroup ratings. >Robbers Cave Experiment/Psychological theories.



1. Sherif, M. and Sherif, C.W. (1969) Social Psychology. New York: Harper & Row.
2. Sherif, M., Harvey, O.J., White, B.J., Hood, W.R. and Sherif, C.W. (1961) Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation: The Robbers Cave Experiment. Norman, OK: Institute of Group Relations, University of Oklahoma.

Michael W. Platow and John A. Hunter, „ Intergroup Relations and Conflicts. Revisiting Sherif’s Boys’ Camp studies“, in: Joanne R. Smith and S. Alexander Haslam (eds.) 2017. Social Psychology. Revisiting the Classic studies. London: Sage Publications


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Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution. Translations: Dictionary of Arguments
The note [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.
Sherif, Muzafer
Haslam I
S. Alexander Haslam
Joanne R. Smith
Social Psychology. Revisiting the Classic Studies London 2017


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