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7.4: Robbers Cave
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7.4: Robbers Cave

During the 1950s, the landmark Robbers Cave experiment demonstrated that when groups must compete with one another, intergroup conflict, hostility, and even violence may result. At the Oklahoman summer camp, two troops of boys—termed the Rattlers and the Eagles—took part in a week-long tournament. During this time, their negativity culminated in derogatory name-calling, fistfights, and even vandalism and destruction of property. However, this work also revealed that such tension could be lessened through the implementation of superordinate goals, or objectives that, in order to be reached, require groups to work together in a positive manner. For example, during the Robbers Cave study, along with teaming up to help start a truck, both the Rattlers and Eagles pooled their money to view a popular movie at the time, Treasure Island (Sherif, Harvey, White, et al., 1988; see also Sherif, 1956). Although the Robbers Cave study only focused on two small groups, its insight into the formation and remediation of intergroup conflict is still applicable today.

Mechanisms of Action of Superordinate Goals

While the common goals introduced in the Robbers Cave experiment helped to unite the Rattlers and Eagles, the question arose as to how this was possible. More recent research has suggested that this outcome may result from changes in how groups categorize one another (Gaertner, Dovido, Banker, et al., 2000). On the one hand, when two groups come together during a subordinate goal, this behavior results in one-on-one interactions between members. Instead of an “us” and “them” mentality, individuals get to learn about one another—like each other’s favorite games, friends, sports, and home life. This process decategorizes a member of a different group; they are seen as a distinct person, rather than part of a “them” enemy faction.

In addition, when groups unite under a common goal, people recategorize one another as having the same identity (Gaertner, Dovido, Banker, et al., 2000; see also Kelly & Collett, 2008). For example, when the Rattlers and Eagles joined together to help start a truck needed to procure provisions, they may not have seen themselves as “us” and “them” cliques, but rather as members of the same camp working together to solve a problem affecting everyone. This recategorization was also observed at the end of the study when campers rode home together on a single bus singing the song “Oklahoma.” Here, everyone was united and shared a collective identity—both as members of the same camp, and (on a larger scale) as Oklahomans, with pride in their home state. Thus, through fostering decategorization and recategorization of group members, subordinate goals can help lessen conflict.

Applications of Lessons from Robbers Cave

Intergroup conflict occurs in different walks of life: schools (Kelly & Collett, 2008), workplaces (Mannix & Nagler, 2017), healthcare systems (Creasy & Kinard, 2013), and even between nations in the form of outright warfare (Spini, Elcheroth & Fasel, 2008). Some researchers are looking at how lessons learned during the Robbers Cave experiment—such as using superordinate goals to reduce hostility—may be employed to improve relationships between individuals in these different fields.

For example, some work has focused on how healthcare mergers—like when two hospitals combine into one—are affected by intergroup conflict (Creasy & Kinard, 2013). This process can be complicated if employees of the respective facilities adopt an “us vs. them” mentality, which can breed suspicion and dislike, resulting in parties failing to exchange patient or operational information. This reaction may be due, in part, to workers feeling that they compete for a limited number of jobs in the newly-merged entity. To combat this thinking, solutions such as reassuring employees that their jobs are secure and emphasizing superordinate goals—like providing stellar, accessible care for all patients—may help to reduce conflict.

Other work has focused on means to lessen conflict in desegregated schools, where negative interactions may occur between children of different racial or ethnic groups (Kelly & Collett, 2008). Here, superordinate goals—like those related to extracurricular activities—are again emphasized as a way to improve student relations. For example, camaraderie and respect can be fostered amongst the members of a football team who experience the superordinate goal of winning games. Possibly, these positive interactions can also be reinforced by highlighting each individual’s unique contribution to the team, and the fact that all players share a unique identity—they are all members of (and represent) the same school. Thus, by applying principles of the Robbers Cave experiment, intergroup hostilities experienced in today’s society can be lessened, and friendships may be fostered between individuals of different backgrounds.


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