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The Robber's Cave (Sherif 1961)


The aim of this study was to investigate whether or not conflict between two groups of people could be overlooked or resolved by putting the two groups together and placing them in a situation that involved teamwork. The study tested “Realistic conflict theory”. The study observed the different ways in which that groups can regroup and change their attitudes towards one another.

  • Groups that are positively independent-that is, they work toward common goals- will have good intergroup relations.

  • Groups that are negatively independent- that is, they are in competition for scarce resources- will create conflict and ethnocentric attitudes.


The study used 22 boys their ages 11 and 12. All the boys were very similar. They were all white, protestant and living in middle-class homes. The similarities between the boys was deliberate in order to prevent conflict between the members of the group. In order to ensure ecological validity the researchers put together a summer camp in Oklahoma at Robber’s Cave State Park in Oklahoma, where the boys were unaware that they would be participating in a study. The boys did regular camp activities while the researchers observed the boys, making written notes, using cameras and microphones. The study was divided up into three parts.

Part One: The boys formed relationships with each other and were all living in the same house. A few days later, researchers separated the boys into two groups while making sure that best friends were split up. The two groups were instructed to do activities like hikes and sports. A clear hierarchy began to emerge and boys who had difficulty carrying out certain tasks were ridiculed for it. The two groups; “The Eagles” and “The Rattlers” developed their own jokes and assigned themselves a symbol. As a way of figuring out the social status of the boys in the two groups the researchers set up a game of target practice. The board had no marks on it, but the researchers had the board wired so that they would have a better idea on how accurate each of the boys were. The boys of higher social status were regarded as being better at target practice than the boys of lower social status even when the praise didn’t reflect the participants’ accuracy. This activity was a good way for the researchers to figure out who was higher up on the social hierarchy.

Part Two: Researchers chose games for the boys to play that would induce conflict. The boys began name calling and turned against previous friends because of the fact that they were not part of the same group. There were fights between the two groups proving that negative attitudes may form through group identity as well as fighting for resources.

Part Three: The next step was for the researchers to end the conflict between the two groups. The researchers believed that getting the two groups to work towards a common goal would unite them. So the researchers set up situations that involved cooperation between the two groups. As a result there was less tension and hostility and the boys became friends with boys that were from the other group.


This study shows that conflict can be resolved between two groups through the completion of a subordinate goal. This study shows how easy it is to not only make divisions between people, but also how easy it is to reunite them.

Strengths and Limitations

The biggest limitation of this study was how the researchers were able to measure the dependent variable. The researchers are unable to prove that the hostility between the boys increased even if there was an observable difference in how the boys treated each other.

While the study is ecologically valid, it lacks in ethics. The researchers were disguised as camp supervisors and so were able to very easily observe the interactions between the boys without getting in the way. But starting conflicts between the two groups was unethical. There was abuse and stuff such as flags from the opposing group were stolen and set on fire.

McKenzie Cline,
Oct 3, 2016, 7:16 PM