In 1954 the American psychologist Muzafer Sherif set out to prove that hate was learned with the help of two groups of warring 11-year-olds.
At the beginning of the 1950s, while William Golding was a teacher at a boys’ school in Salisbury, he took a group of pupils to the nearby iron age hill fort of Figsbury Ring. The novelist told some of the boys to attack the fort while others defended its grassy ramparts. Golding was shocked at how quickly the schoolboys morphed into ferocious warring tribes: “My eyes came out like organ stops as I watched what was happening.”
Golding’s research into “the nature of small boys” was for his novel, Lord of the Flies. It confirmed his pessimistic view that society’s problems could be traced back “to the defects in human nature”. At the same time in the US, social psychologist Muzafer Sherif was conducting very similar experiments involving groups of warring boys. Unlike the novelist, though, the scientist was an idealist. Rather than blaming human nature, he believed that environments created the conditions in which conflict and violence flourished. In short, he believed hate was learned.
Australian psychologist Gina Perry’s fascinating study shows that Muzafer Sherif’s methods were deeply flawed
Laudable though these aims were, Australian psychologist Gina Perry’s fascinating study shows that Sherif’s methods were deeply flawed. His most famous experiment involved two groups of 11-year-old boys brought together at a summer camp in 1954 at the Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma. Although they were the “cream of the crop” in their communities, Sherif claimed that when exposed to a competitive environment they quickly degenerated into “disturbed, vicious … wicked youngsters”. Peace was restored by faking a rock fall that threatened the camp’s water supply, forcing the boys to cooperate.
Perry’s research raises questions about Sherif’s account of this seminal experiment, casting doubt on how it was conducted and the objectivity of the researchers. A previous experiment went badly wrong when the boys refused to fight. In 1954 everything was carefully stage managed and Perry suggests that the increasingly vicious atmosphere was stirred up by the psychologists. When contacted by Perry, the subjects she terms “the lost boys” were unaware that they were part of a psychological experiment and feel used. “It was a crazy situation run by crazy people,” one says. But Sherif’s assistant remains loyal: “We were fighting prejudice. Traumatised by experiences in his youth in Turkey, Sherif aimed to create a world in which “wounds were healed and what was lost was restored”. Ultimately, Perry, too, remains sympathetic to this temperamental but driven psychologist.
- The Lost Boys by Gina Perry (Scribe Publications, £14.99). To order a copy for £12.74, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.