Stranger than Fiction – The Flies Swamping in Robbers Cave

Social psychology experiments have always toyed with the idea of ‘what could be’ in the most tangible sense. The experiments of the Smoky Room observation, the False Consensus experiment, Milgram’s experiment on obedience and Stanford Prison experiment are some of the few notorious names dotting the controversial list of social experiments in psychology. But the Robbers cave experiment involving children and a strangely mirrored plot of a British dystopian classic and a syllabus patent Lord of the Flies makes it stand apart from the rest.

Muzafer Sherif and team held the historic Robbers Cave experiment. A group of 22 white 11 year boys from similar demographic and income group were were sent to a special remote summer camp in Oklahoma, Robbers Cave State Park where for an experiment on social conflict along the hypothesis: Strangers in a group context establish hierarchical structures to achieve group goals and “when two groups have conflicting aims… their members will become hostile to each other even though the groups are composed of normal well-adjusted individuals.”

The boys had no previous interactions and even arrived in separate buses to the camp and they had not been previously informed of the nature of the Robbers Cave Camp, located in southeast Oklahoma as a social experiment, but the parents had been aware of the true nature of the experiment. More than 300 hours had been devoted to screening the boys’ teachers and scrutinizing their behaviour in schools and playgrounds to ensure an analogous group as far as possible. Once in the camp, the staff (the disguised researchers) divided the 22 boys randomly into 2 groups and assigned them various tasks like hiking, swimming, playing sports in the camp area and so on. Both groups had organically established their own territories within the park and self christened themselves as the Rattlers and the Eagles respectively ( officiated even through stencils of group names onto their shirts and representative flags). Each group began to treat the other apprehensively and cautiously- along with exhibiting strong inner group cohesiveness and positive group attitudes. This is when the staff manufactured a competitive spirit through introducing competitive sports- baseball games, tug of war, tent pitching competitions and the like. Tensions solidified even more and rolled into hostilities and even physical violence and the crystal clear intention to harm the members of the other group- the eagles stealing and burning rattler flags on losing games, the rattlers raiding eagles camps at night and disrupting routines. The conflict culminated with the rattlers breaking in and absconding the prizes of the final champions- the eagles. The staff had to intervene and pull aside the two groups to break the surging violence and string of expletives. Both groups who had no shared experiences or even prior knowledge of the others existence and no notable criminal or delinquent trait loathed each other. The experiment was an exercise in group structures as clear from the hypothesis and this is where more than a mere symbolic uncanny similarity and a very real plausible resemblance begins to emerge between the conditions of the experiment and “Lord of the Flies”, William Golding’s very famous novel with a spin on the trope of the British adventuring boys. The plot scripts a group of 12 year old boys who crash landed onto an unknown island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean’s heart. Two natural leaders emerge among this group- Ralph and Jack and they assume positions of leadership along with few more significant characters- all notably in the absence of an adult character. The war raging on in the outer world forms the macrocosm of a grim social reality that reflects and simultaneously is a commentary on the darkness harboured deep within mankind’s heart- no matter the age. The novel, published in 1954, surprisingly came out in the year of the experiment- 1954. A mere coincidence or a very implicitly planted inspiration, remains to be unearthed. The similarities abound right from the setting itself- the boys are stranded without any ostensible adult intervention ( in the camp too the adults act as an initiator and refrain from directly engaging in the ‘summer camp’ as much as possible). Both groups of boys are a homogeneous collection within similar age backgrounds – the boys in the real world are 11 year old White boys from a Protestant background with both sets of parents and a middle class economic upbringing. Golding’s boys, while fictitious, mirror a middle class white upbringing and everyone lies within the age group 9 to 12 years. Sheriff’s team observed how the boys had initially been inclined to cooperate. As soon as Sheriff’s team introduced competitive sports or activities involving prizes that only the winner had claimed, the riffs and tussles began to arise, initially harmless to potentially threatening by the time the team of experimenters intervened. The novel however, in its literary creative license, presents a very sinister ( overtly sinister by many critics) view of the lawlessness of the young boys. The tangible prize in this lawless world of primitivity is food and shelter- essential modes of survival. While Ralph and his sympathisers decided to continue to stick to the original plan of feeding duel to the signal fire and building shelters, Jack and company gave in to the more primitive urge of hunting – a means of sustenance that soon changed into undiluted bloodlust and free terrain to the id ( the Freudian principle of gratuitous pleasure ). Muzafer Sherif and team conceptualised Realistic Conflict Theory in the context of this competition giving way to violence. The Realistic Conflict Theory dictates how individuals are inclined to clash over resources in limited supply but in great demand. In fact, it even added further significance to the sentiment of winning the coveted reward and an associated attribution of pride and honour on proving best. With the divide in ideologies Golding’s boys decided to get physical markers indicative of their unity and disparity. Jack and the ‘hunters’ painted themselves and embraced their most primeval instincts- to the point where even other boys succumbed to their haze of bloodlust. This is where the novel most ostensibly digresses from the real life events in Robbers Cave park- the boys in the novel ultimately gave in to hunting their fellow survivors, namely Ralph and his cronies, to have no dissidence and only one “supreme ruler” and the ultimate confrontation challenged mortal realities of the boys. In the experiment when Sheriff and team saw the gradual buildup of violence they introduced counter measures to reverse the feelings of ill will. The boys were forced to work in cooperation for achieving mutually beneficial goals such as moving a truck stuck in the mud and so on. In the novel the deus ex machina happened in the arrival of a naval officer delivering the boys from the common hell inflicting their species as a whole. There was no reconciliation explicitly mentioned. Only bitter tears wept in the wake of inconsolable grief and violence.

Ethical implications in social psychology have always been a matter of great contention. The subterfuge inherent in the boys’ guardians not being told of the hate that will be manufactured, especially among boys in their pre-teen years that might potentially scar them for life, makes for a troubling legacy. The problematic situation is borne out in the Now-grown camper Doug Griset’s ironical recollection : “I’m not traumatized by the experiment, but I don’t like lakes, camps, cabins or tents.” One for a psychological hall of fame in its notoriety and its remarkable foundations, the exploration with literature becomes even more relevant in the present generation of intersectional academic rigour.

– Bipasha Bhowmick

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