January 27, 2013


Us and them : From newborns to nation states, we trust similarity. But does that mean we must hate difference? (Marek Kohn 10 January 2013, Aeon)

In the summer of 1954, the social psychologist Muzafer Sherif and his colleagues at the University of Oklahoma took two groups of 11 boys, aged 11, to a scout campsite in Robbers Cave State Park in southeast Oklahoma. At first, the two groups were unaware of each other's existence. Before long, they had given themselves names -- the 'Rattlers' and the 'Eagles' -- and flags, and begun an informal rivalry.

Then the researchers inaugurated a tournament, with medals and knives as prizes. The Rattlers decided to put flags on the swimming hole and other sites they claimed as theirs. When they planted their flag on the baseball field, the Eagles tore it down and burned it. A series of tit-for-tat cabin raids ensued. At one point, the Eagles filled socks with stones to defend themselves. Having stoked the conflict to the verge of potentially lethal violence, the researchers then induced co-operation by getting the two groups to work together for a common goal.

William Golding's The Lord of the Flies was published a few months later. It has the same demonstrative quality: both exercises leave us with the sinking feeling that they have dramatised something we already knew about human nature, and that their authors knew their conclusions in advance. In structure rather than mood, however, the Robbers Cave experiment has more in common with Chesterton's novel. The researchers and the king both set up groups that then vied with each other for symbols of prestige provided by the manipulating authorities -- the king's banners and the psychologists' medals. And crucially, the contests were over territory and goods as well as prestige. Although the 'free cities' of Chesterton's London ended up fighting over local honour, the author took care to establish a material basis for antagonism in the original conflict over the plan to build a road through Notting Hill. The Rattlers and the Eagles coveted the knives that the experimenters dangled before them, out there in psychology's Wild West. Sumner himself believed that tensions between groups arose from contests over resources -- that they were about something more than group identity itself.

That point of view left the psychologist Henri Tajfel with the 'nagging feeling that it omits an important part of the story'. In the early 1970s, he set out to see just how little it took to create devotion to an in-group and antipathy towards an out-group. Working at the University of Bristol, he gave local teenage boys a meaningless test, estimating numbers of dots shown on a screen. The boys were then assigned at random to two groups, designated arbitrarily as 'underestimators' and 'overestimators'. Asked to give each other cash rewards or penalties, they favoured members of their own group, displaying gratuitous spite towards the other group by declining to give rewards even when it didn't reduce the amount that went to their own.

Setting up 'minimal groups' like these became standard procedure for researchers interested in what makes in-groups tick. The findings leave no room for doubt: people will coalesce into parochial groups at the drop of a hat, no matter how arbitrary, tiny, vague, esoteric or spurious the differences between them. Rewards, prizes or turf wars will bring the biases to light, but they aren't necessary. In-group love and bias against out-groups can arise even if nothing at all is at stake.

Posted by at January 27, 2013 8:14 PM

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