Podcast Episode 249: The Robbers Cave Experiment

robbers cave

In 1954 a social psychologist started a war between two teams of fifth graders at an Oklahoma summer camp. He wanted to investigate the sources of human conflict and how people might overcome them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the Robbers Cave Experiment and examine its evolving reputation.

We’ll also dredge up a Dalek and puzzle over a hazardous job.


Butler University mathematician Jerry Farrell can control coin flips.

Nashville attorney Edwin H. Tenney gave a baffling Independence Day speech in 1858.

Sources for our feature on the Robbers Cave experiment:

Muzafer Sherif et al., Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation: The Robbers Cave Experiment, 1961.

Gina Perry, The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave Experiment, 2018.

Ayfer Dost-Gozkan and Doga Sonmez Keith, Norms, Groups, Conflict, and Social Change: Rediscovering Muzafer Sherif’s Psychology, 2015.

Paul Bloom, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, 2013.

Gina Perry, “The View From the Boys,” Psychologist 27:11 (November 2014), 834-836.

Ralph H. Turner, “Some Contributions of Muzafer Sherif to Sociology,” Social Psychology Quarterly 53:4 (December 1990), 283-291.

Muzafer Sherif, “Superordinate Goals in the Reduction of Intergroup Conflict,” American Journal of Sociology 63:4 (January 1958), 349-356.

Gregory M. Walton and Carol S. Dweck, “Solving Social Problems Like a Psychologist,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 4:1 (January 2009), 101-102.

O.J. Harvey, “Muzafer Sherif (1906–1988),” American Psychologist 44:10, October 1989, 1325-1326.

Elton B. McNeil, “Discussions and Reviews: Waging Experimental War: A Review,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 6:1 (March 1962), 77.

Alex Haslam, “War and Peace and Summer Camp,” Nature 556:7701 (April 19, 2018), 306-307.

Steven N. Durlauf, “A Framework for the Study of Individual Behavior and Social Interactions,” Sociological Methodology 31 (2001), 47.

Gary Alan Fine, “Review: Forgotten Classic: The Robbers Cave Experiment,” Sociological Forum 19:4 (December 2004), 663-666.

Andrew Tyerman and Christopher Spencer, “A Critical Test of the Sherifs’ Robber’s Cave Experiments: Intergroup Competition and Cooperation Between Groups of Well-Acquainted Individuals,” Small Group Research 14:4 (November 1983), 515-531.

Samuel L. Gaertner et al., “Reducing Intergroup Conflict: From Superordinate Goals to Decategorization, Recategorization, and Mutual Differentiation,” Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice 4:1 (March 2000), 98-114.

Furkan Amil Gur, Benjamin D. McLarty, and Jeff Muldoon, “The Sherifs’ Contributions to Management Research,” Journal of Management History 23:2 (2017), 191-216.

Anna E. Kosloski, Bridget K. Welch, “Confronting Student Prejudice With ‘Mario Kart’ Nintendo Wii,” Social Thought and Research 31 (2010), 79-87.

Carol Tavris, “Thinking Critically About Psychology’s Classic Studies,” Skeptic 19:4 (2014), 38-43, 64.

Michael J. Lovaglia, “From Summer Camps to Glass Ceilings: The Power of Experiments,” Contexts 2:4 (Fall 2003), 42-49.

J. McKenzie Alexander, “Group Dynamics in the State of Nature,” Erkenntnis 55:2 (September 2001), 169-182.

Maria Konnikova, “Revisiting Robbers Cave: The Easy Spontaneity of Intergroup Conflict,” Scientific American, Sept. 5, 2012.

Peter Gray, “A New Look at the Classic Robbers Cave Experiment,” Psychology Today, Dec. 9, 2009.

David P. Barash, “Why People Kill,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 8, 2015.

Barbara McMahon, “I Survived the Real-Life Lord of the Flies,” Times, April 25, 2018, 2.

Leyla Sanai, “‘The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave Experiment’, by Gina Perry – Review,” Spectator, April 28, 2018.

Anoosh Chakelian, “The Lasting Wounds of Robbers Cave,” New Statesman 147:5425 (June 29-July 5, 2018), 16-17.

Judy Golding Carver, “What Lord of the Flies Is Really About,” Guardian, April 20, 2018, 8.

Eleanor Learmonth and Jenny Tabakoff, “‘What Are We? Humans? Or Animals? Or Savages?'” Independent on Sunday, March 16, 2014, 26.

Darragh McManus, “The Real-Life ‘Lord of the Flies,'” Irish Independent, May 5, 2018, 18.

David Shariatmadari, “A Real-Life Lord of the Flies: The Troubling Legacy of the Robbers Cave Experiment,” Guardian, April 16, 2018.

Gina Perry, “Real-Life Lord of the Flies,” Qatar Tribune, Feb. 24, 2018.

Peter Waterson, “Letters: Love-Hate,” Guardian, Oct. 18, 2001, 25.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, “Mojibake” (accessed May 10, 2019).

Victoria Ward, “‘Weekend Foggy Earphones’: How Three Random Words Helped Police Come to Rescue of Mother and Daughter,” Telegraph, March 25, 2019.

Tiffany Lo, “How Mum and Daughter Were Saved by Saying Words ‘Weekend Foggy Earphones’ to Cops,” Mirror, March 26, 2019.

Jane Wakefield, “Three-Unique-Words ‘Map’ Used to Rescue Mother and Child,” BBC News, March 26, 2019.

Mark Bridge, “Valerie Hawkett: Three Words Find Woman Who Crashed Car in a Field,” Times, March 26, 2019.

“Dr Who Dalek Found in Pond,” Telegraph, March 4, 2009.

Wikipedia, “Dalek” (accessed May 10, 2019).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Sam Dyck, who, for background, sent this summary of 2017 fatal occupation injuries from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at https://futilitycloset.libsyn.com/rss.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — you can choose the amount you want to pledge, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 248: Smoky the War Dog


In 1944, an American soldier discovered a Yorkshire terrier in an abandoned foxhole in New Guinea. Adopted by an Army photographer, she embarked on a series of colorful adventures that won the hearts of the humans around her. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Smoky the dog, one of the most endearing characters of World War II.

We’ll also contemplate chicken spectacles and puzzle over a gratified diner.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 246: Gene Tierney’s Secret Heartbreak


At the height of her fame in 1943, movie star Gene Tierney contracted German measles during pregnancy and bore a daughter with severe birth defects. The strain ended her marriage to Oleg Cassini and sent her into a breakdown that lasted years. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Tierney’s years of heartbreak and the revelation that compounded them.

We’ll also visit some Japanese cats and puzzle over a disarranged corpse.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 245: Jeanne Baret


The first woman to circumnavigate the world did so dressed as a man. In 1766, 26-year-old Jeanne Baret joined a French expedition hoping to conceal her identity for three years. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of her historic journey around the globe.

We’ll also hear Mark Twain’s shark story and puzzle over a foiled con artist.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 244: The Women’s Protest

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In February 1943, hundreds of German women joined in a spontaneous protest in central Berlin. They were objecting to the roundup of some of the city’s last Jews — their husbands. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the Rosenstrasse protest, a remarkable example of civil disobedience.

We’ll also ponder whether a computer can make art and puzzle over some unusual phone calls.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 242: The Cardiff Giant


In 1869, two well diggers in Cardiff, N.Y., unearthed an enormous figure made of stone. More than 600,000 people flocked to see the mysterious giant, but even as its fame grew, its real origins were coming to light. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Cardiff giant, one of the greatest hoaxes of the 19th century.

We’ll also ponder the effects of pink and puzzle over a potentially painful treatment.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 241: A Case of Scientific Self-Deception


In 1903, French physicist Prosper-René Blondlot decided he had discovered a new form of radiation. But the mysterious rays had some exceedingly odd properties, and scientists in other countries had trouble seeing them at all. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of N-rays, a cautionary tale of self-deception.

We’ll also recount another appalling marathon and puzzle over a worthless package.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 240: The Shark Papers


In 1799 two Royal Navy ships met on the Caribbean Sea, and their captains discovered they were parties to a mind-boggling coincidence that would expose a crime and make headlines around the world. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the shark papers, one of the strangest coincidences in maritime history.

We’ll also meet some Victorian kangaroos and puzzle over an expedient fire.

See full show notes …