In Forming Silos, I reviewed the Robbers Cave Experiment and how they tried to create silos as part of their research on in-group and out-group conflict. In this post, I want to review stage two of the experiment, where the intent is to create conflict between the two newly created silos.
On the face of it, creating tension between two groups is so easy it’s almost embarrassing. All the researchers did was create a series of winner take all challenges for the two groups to compete in. Then, to aggravate the situation, they subtly manipulated the scoring so that each side would cheated out of a win. Of course, back in the 1950’s this was a relatively novel idea. Now we have reality TV and we call it ‘Survivor’. The difference the Robbers Cave experiment and ‘Survivor’ was that in the case of Robbers Cave, nobody is voted off the island.
The challenges were the sorts of games and other activities that you would commonly find in summer camp: baseball games, football games, tent pitching competitions, tug o’ War, cabin inspections, skits and songs, treasure hunts, and so forth. The emphasis was on keeping the competition as realistic as possible. I think the importance of keeping the setting as natural as possible was critical to the success of the experiment. They did not want the boys to feel like they were being manipulated or observed by the camp counselors/researchers (even though that is exactly what was happening). So rather than setting up artificial challenges, the researchers went to great lengths to make sure that the challenges were appropriate to the setting. In fact, the researchers were so concerned about this that they repeated the study on at least two different previous occasions before getting it right on the third try. That sort of persistence is particularly impressive, given the enormous investment in time and resources required to put together a large experiment like this.
So we have the two groups competing against one another for scarce resources (various and sundry trophies, flags and other rewards). In very short order the two groups not only hate each other, but they are getting into name calling and fist fights and refusing to go anywhere near each other. They go so far as to raid each other’s cabins, wreaking havoc, and stealing things from ‘the enemy’ team. By the end of this phase, we have two groups that well and truly hate each other. They exhibit all of the territoriality and biases that characterize a pair of badly dysfunctional silos. Furthermore, they manage to accomplish this in less than a week. Apparently, it does not take very long to create a dysfunctional group.
As in the previous stage of the experiment, the researchers had a few hypothesis about what might happen in stage two when the competition was introduced. Their first theory was that competition would increase the in-group solidarity of the two teams. This makes sense, when we are competing against some outside enemy, you would expect it to tighten the interpersonal bonds within your own group. In fact that’s exactly what happened in this case. The teams became more tightly knit in the face of competition from another group. To use a cliché, each group closed ranks in the face of danger.
Another hypothesis was that the functional relationships between the two groups would affect the relationships within each individual group. This is a little hard to sort out, but as I understand it, what this means is that if things are going poorly for your group in the competition between your two teams, it is very likely that there may be a change in leadership for your group. I’ve seen this happen before in competing teams. The tension and the friction that builds up between the two groups eventually leads to one group looking, at least temporarily, like the “winner” and the losing group may reorganize itself in the face of their own perceived leadership failure. I do not think this necessarily alleviates the problem in any manifest way, but it does follow that the intergroup relations reflect on the relations of people within each group.
The final hypothesis is the one that I find the most worrisome of the bunch. Basically, in a group conflict, the theory is that low status members of either group will be more likely to act out violently in deed and word than higher status members of the group in order to to improve their own status within the group. Therefore, not only do you have the inter-group conflict going on, but you also have people within each group who are trying to take advantage of that conflict in order to advance their own status within each group. How do they try to change their status? By being the loudest voices to demonize the other group. They do accomplish their ends by actively provoking conflict between the two groups. This of course just serves to further aggravate the tensions already present between the two groups. At this point, the conflict has becomes self-perpetuating.
If we stopped the experiment here, I think that there are many people who might just say, “You see? I told you so. People are just nasty and brutish.” There certainly were those who only seemed capable of reading to this point in the study and deciding that it confirmed all of their worst stereotypes of human behavior. However, the experiment doesn’t not stop here. This is still the setup for what is perhaps the most interesting phase of the experiment – the stage where they introduce the strategies they used to reconcile the two groups. The story of how they managed to re-integrate the two groups and achieve real collaboration is truly remarkable.