Robbers Cave Experiment | Realistic Conflict Theory

Muzafer Sherif argued that intergroup conflict (i.e., conflict between groups) occurs when two groups are in competition for limited resources.

This theory is supported by evidence from a famous study investigating group conflict: The Robbers Cave Experiment (Sherif, 1954, 1958, 1961).

Key Takeaways

  • In the Robbers Cave field experiment, 22 white, 11-year-old boys were sent to a special remote summer camp in Oklahoma, Robbers Cave State Park.
  • The boys developed an attachment to their groups throughout the first week of the camp by doing various activities together like hiking, swimming, etc.
  • The boys chose names for their groups, The Eagles and The Rattlers.
  • During a four-day series of competitions between the groups prejudice began to become apparent between the two groups (both physical and verbal).
  • During the subsequent two-day cooling-off period, the boys listed features of the two groups. The boys tended to characterize their own in-group in very favourable terms, and the other out-group in very unfavourable terms.
  • Sherif then attempted to reduce the prejudice, or inter-group conflict, shown by each group. However, simply increasing the contact of the two groups only made the situation worse.
  • Alternatively forcing the groups to work together to reach common goals, eased prejudice and tension among the groups.
  • This experiment confirmed Sherif’s realistic conflict theory (also called realistic group conflict theory), the idea that group conflict can result from competition over resources.

In the mid-1950’s Muzafer Sherif and others carried out the Robbers Cave experiment on intergroup conflict and co-operation as a part of research programme at the University of Oklahoma.

The hypotheses tested were:

  1. When individuals who don”t know each other are brought together to interact in group activities in order to achieve common goals, they will produce a group structure with hierarchical statuses and roles within it.
  2. When two in-groups, once formed, are brought into functional relationship under conditions of competition and group frustration, attitudes and appropriate hostile actions in relation to the out-group and its members will arise; these will be standardised and shared in varying degrees by group members.

Overview of the Study

The field experiment involved two groups of twelve-year-old boys at Robber’s Cave State Park, Oklahoma, America.

The twenty-two boys in the study were unknown to each other and all from white middle-class backgrounds.  They all shared a Protestant, two-parent background.

The boys were randomly divided by the researchers into two groups, with efforts being made to balance the physical, mental and social talents of the groups.

Neither group was aware of the other’s existence.

They were then, as individual groups, picked up by bus on successive days in the summer of 1954 and transported to a 200-acre Boy Scouts of America camp in the Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma (with researchers doubling as counselors).

Phase 1: In-group Formation (5-6 Days)

The members of each group got to know one other, social norms developed, leadership and group structure emerged.

At the camp the groups were kept separate from each other and were encouraged to bond as two individual groups through the pursuit of common goals that required co-operative discussion, planning and execution.

During this first phase, the groups did not know of the other group’s existence.

The boys developed an attachment to their groups throughout the first week of the camp, quickly establishing their own cultures and group norms, by doing various activities together like hiking, swimming, etc.

The boys chose names for their groups, The Eagles and The Rattlers, and stenciled them onto shirts and flags.

Phase 2: Group Conflict (4-5 Days)

The now-formed groups came into contact with each other, competing in games and challenges, and competing for control of territory.

Sherif now arranged the “competition stage” where friction between the groups was to occur over the next 4-6 days. In this phase it was intended to bring the two groups into competition with each other in conditions that would create frustration between them.

A series of competitive activities (e.g. baseball, tug-of-war etc.) were arranged with a trophy being awarded on the basis of accumulated team score.

There were also individual prizes for the winning group such as a medal and a multi-bladed pocket knife with no consolation prizes being given to the “losers.”

The Rattlers” reaction to the informal announcement of a series of contests was absolute confidence in their victory! They spent the day talking about the contests and making improvements on the ball field, which they took over as their own to such an extent that they spoke of putting a “Keep Off” sign there! They ended up putting their Rattler flag on the pitch. At this time, several Rattlers made threatening remarks about what they would do if anybody from The Eagles bothered their flag.

Situations were also devised whereby one group gained at the expense of the other. For example, one group was delayed getting to a picnic and when they arrived the other group had eaten their food.

At first, this prejudice was only verbally expressed, such as through taunting or name-calling. As the competition wore on, this expression took a more direct route. The Eagles burned the Rattler’s flag.

Then the next day, the Rattler’s ransacked The Eagle’s cabin, overturned beds, and stole private property. The groups became so aggressive with each other that the researchers had to physically separate them.

During the subsequent two-day cooling-off period, the boys listed features of the two groups. The boys tended to characterize their own in-group in very favorable terms, and the other out-group in very unfavorable terms.

Keep in mind that the participants in this study were well-adjusted boys, not street gang members. This study clearly shows that conflict between groups can trigger prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behavior. This experiment confirmed Sherif’s realistic conflict theory.

Phase 3: Conflict Resolution (6-7 Days)

Sherif and colleagues tried various means of reducing the animosity and low-level violence between the groups.

The Robbers Cave experiments showed that superordinate goals (goals so large that it requires more than one group to achieve the goal) reduced conflict significantly more effectively than other strategies (e.g., communication, contact).

A number of improvised reconciliatory opportunities (such as a bean-collecting contest, or the showing of a film, or the shooting of Firecrackers to celebrate the fourth of July) did not lead to any appreciable lessening of tensions between the Eagles and the Rattlers.

Sherif et al. concluded that such contrived contact opportunities were not going to lessen tensions between the groups.

They now arranged for the introduction of a number of scenarios presenting superordinate goals which could not be easily ignored by members of the two antagonistic groups, but the attainment of which was beyond the resources and efforts of one group alone.

These scenarios were played out at a new location in the belief that this would tend to inhibit recall of grievances that had been experienced at Robbers Cave.

The Drinking Water Problem

The first superordinate goal to be introduced concerned a common resource used by both groups. Their water supply, which had suddenly stopped flowing.

All of the drinking water in the camp came from a reservoir on the mountain north of the camp. The water supply had failed and the Camp staff blamed this on “vandals.”

Upon investigations of the extensive water lines by the Eagles and the Rattlers as separate groups, they discovered that an outlet faucet had a sack stuffed into it.

Almost all the boys gathered around the faucet to try to clear it. Suggestions from members of both groups concerning effective ways to unblock the obstruction were thrown in from all sides simultaneously which led to cooperative efforts clearing the obstacle itself. The joint work on the faucet lasted over 45 minutes.

When the water finally came on there was common rejoicing. The Rattlers did not object to having the Eagles get ahead of them when they all got a drink, as the Eagles did not have canteens with them and were thirstier. No protests or “Ladies first” type of remarks were made!

The Problem of Securing a Movie

The next superordinate goal to be introduced was a favourite feature-length movie for boys of their age. Two films had been chosen in consultation with children’s movie experts and brought to the camp along with other stimulus materials.

In the afternoon, the boys were called together and the staff suggested the possibility of watching either “Treasure Island” or “Kidnapped”: Both groups yelled approval of these films.

After some discussion, one Rattler said, “Everyone that wants Treasure Island raise their hands.” The majority of members in both groups gave enthusiastic approval to “Treasure Island” even though a few dissensions were expressed to this choice.

Then the staff announced that securing the film would cost $15 and the camp could not pay the whole sum!

After much discussion it was suggested that both groups would pay $3.50 and the camp would pay the balance.

This was accepted even though, as a couple of homesick Eagles had gone home, the contribution per person per group was unequal.

At supper that night there were no objections to eating together. Some scuffling and sticking chewing gum on each other occurred between members of the two groups, but it involved fewer boys on both sides than were usually involved in such encounters.

Other problem-solving superordinate goals introduced in this phase included the joint use of a tug-of-war-rope, and both groups of boys “accidentally” coming across a stuck-in-a-rut truck that was carrying food for both groups.

In the event, the joint pursuit of such superordinate goals saw a lessening of intergroup conflict. At breakfast and lunch on the last day of camp, the seating arrangements were considerably mixed up insofar as group membership was concerned.

Critical Evaluation

The events at Robbers Cave mimicked the kinds of conflict that plague people all over the world. The simplest explanation for this conflict is competition. Assign strangers to groups, throw the groups into competition, stir the pot, and soon there is conflict.

There is a lot of evidence that when people compete for scarce resources (e.g. jobs, land etc.) there is a rise in hostility between groups. For example, in times of high unemployment there may be high levels of racism among white people who believe that black people (or asylum seekers) have taken their jobs. The study was a field experiment which means it has high ecological validity.

However, the Robbers Cave study has been criticized on a number of issues. For example, the two groups of boys in the study were artificial, as was the competition, and did not necessarily reflect real life. For example, middle class boys randomly assigned into two separate groups is not rival inner city gangs, or rival football supporters.

Ethical issues must also be considered. The participants were deceived, as they did not know the true aim of the study. Also, participants were not protected from physical and psychological harm.

Nor should the results be generalized to real life because the research used only 12 year old white middle class boys and excluded, for example, girls and adults.


Sherif, M. (1954). Experimental study of positive and negative intergroup attitudes between experimentally produced groups: robbers cave study. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma.

Sherif, M. (1956). Experiments in group conflict. Scientific American, 195 (5), 54-59.

Sherif, M. (1958). Superordinate goals in the reduction of intergroup conflict. American Journal of Sociology, 349-356.

Sherif, M., Harvey, O. J., White, B. J., Hood, W. R., & Sherif, C. W. (1961). Intergroup conflict and cooperation: The Robbers Cave experiment (Vol. 10). Norman, OK: University Book Exchange.

Olivia Guy-Evans

BSc (Hons), Psychology, MSc, Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Educator, Researcher

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.