In 1954, two separate groups of 11-year olds arrived at a sprawling 200-acre Boy Scout camp in Oklahoma. Both groups of children arrived at the camp, unaware of the existence of the other. For the first week, each group spent their days doing traditional summer camp activities; games, hikes, and swimming. They grew close to one another, forming friendships and bonds. They made flags and shirts, being sure to include the names they’d picked for their camp, the Rattlers and Eagles.
After day 6, the camp counselors revealed the opposing camp and decided to have some fun with it, instituting a series of competitions to crown a champion. Tug of war, baseball, and the like quickly followed, with prizes and bragging rights for the winners. Thrust into a competition, and now aware of a foe, things heated up quickly. Each group started staking claim to various parts of the camp, with the Rattlers planting their flag in the middle of the baseball field and warning the Eagles to not touch it.
All the while, the camp counselors egged this behavior on, trashing the cafeteria or taking away all of the food, then blaming it on the other side. With a few nudges to set the stage, as the competition got underway and different teams faced the humiliation of losing, the 11-year olds moved quickly from innocent trash-talking to all-out war. The Eagles burned the Rattler’s flag following a tug-of-war loss. The Rattlers broke into the Eagle’s cabin, throwing things everywhere and stealing some of their possessions.
The camp counselors had to intervene. They separated the two groups, gave them a day or two to cool off, and started interviewing them to get to the bottom of this. Each group declared innocence for their own camp, and blamed the other side, convinced that they were no good.
Of course, what I’m describing wasn’t an ordinary camp, it was the result of a famous psychology study run by Muzafer Sherif. The camp counselors were researchers, though the children actually were generally well-adjusted 11-year olds. Depending on how this story is told, it often represents the ease with which we can create enemies out of artificial groups.
But the real lesson is Sherif’s study was in the final part. They tried all sorts of ways to remove the conflict, to get rid of the hate and distrust between the groups. From talking it through to watching movies together, to joint activities like celebrating 4th of July. All failed.
What ultimately brought the two groups together was what Sherif and colleagues called superordinate goals. Tasks that couldn’t be done by a single group, but needed mass cooperation to get done. Goals that brought them together, all aiming for something good and beneficial, was the key. For instance, in one challenge, the campers had to fix the main water faucet that supplied water to the entire camp. In another, the groups came across the truck that was supposed to deliver the camp’s food, stuck in a rut.
After every ‘superordinate goal’ animosity dropped and the separate groups started to mingle. For instance, in the day that followed a joint goal, instead of sitting at separate tables at meals, the kids started to mix.
While much has been written about the Robber Cave experiment and its implications. I can’t help but think of how that ties into the United States as a country right now. We are a divided nation, egged on by ‘counselors’ (i.e. politicians) to sow discord between us. To convince us that we are two different groups incapable of understanding the other, complete with silly signs, flags, and names that have little true meaning. We’ve forgotten that we are fundamentally the same: human beings, with most of us falling somewhere near the middle of the bell curve of life. We are like the 11-year olds, convinced that we are in a competition and that the other side is harmful, hateful, and disgusting. Blaming all the ills and deceit of a few on the many.
But we too can come together. To bring back common humanity and values of decency, compassion, and love. To understand that we’re more alike than different and that for some, we’ve been blinded or even manipulated to what we truly care about and value, just like the 11-year old boys. That’s human psychology. Fear and hate are powerful motivators. Politicians exploit them to get us on ‘their’ side. They blind and insulate us, create us vs. them, Eagles vs. Rattlers. We need decency, love, and understanding now more than ever. We need unity, to come together in our shared humanity.
I’m not sure what our ‘superordinate goals’ are, but I hope we find some.
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