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.

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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!

More Madan

Excerpts from the notebooks of English belletrist Geoffrey Madan (1895-1947):

[Eton] masters asleep during Essay in various abandoned attitudes. Hornby like a frozen mammoth in a cave; Stone drooping; Vaughan like a monarch taking his rest; Churchill like a fowl on a perch with a film over his eyes.

A.E. Housman’s epitaph: the only member of the middle classes who never called himself a gentleman.

“It is the cause”: theory that Othello closes and lays down a Bible.

Gladstone’s Virgil quotations, like plovers’ nests: impossible to see till you’ve been shown.

“Love gratified is love satisfied, and love satisfied is indifference begun.” — Richardson

“It matters not at all in what way I lay this poker on the floor. But if Bonaparte should say it must be placed in this direction, we must instantly insist upon its being laid in some other one.” — Nelson

“Conservative: a man with an inborn conviction that he is right, without being able to prove it.” — Revd. T. James, 1844

“Lord Normanby, in recklessly opening the Irish gaols, has exchanged the customary attributes of Mercy and Justice: he has made Mercy blind, and Justice weeping.” — Lord Wellesley

Auld Lang Syne

Image: Wikipedia

The yacht club, which was directly across from the island, would always have a big New Year’s party. If the wind was blowing from that direction to the Rock, you could actually hear people laughing, you could hear music, you could hear girls laughing. You know, you could hear all the sounds coming from the free world, at the Rock. And New Year’s was always the night we heard it.

There was never a day you didn’t see what the hell you were losing, and what you were missing, you know. It was all there for you to see. There’s life. There’s everything I want in my life, and it’s there. It’s a mile or a mile and half away. And yet I can’t get to it.

— Jim Quillen, Alcatraz Inmate 586, in narration recorded for the self-guiding tour


There was once a man who married a sweet little wife; but when he set out with her from her father’s house, he found that she had never been taught to walk. They had a long way to go, and there was nothing for him to do but to carry her; and as he carried her she grew heavier and heavier.

Then they came to a wide, deep river, and he found that she had never been taught to swim. So he told her to hold fast to his shoulder, and started to swim with her across the river. And as he swam she grew frightened, and dragged him down in her struggles. And the river was deep and wide, and the current ran fast; and once or twice she nearly had him under. But he fought his way through, and landed her safely on the other side; and behold, he found himself in a strange country, beyond all imagining delightful. And as he looked about him and gave thanks, he said to himself:

‘Perhaps if I hadn’t had to carry her over, I shouldn’t have kept up long enough to get here myself.’

— Edith Wharton, The Valley of Childish Things, and Other Emblems, 1896

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 …

Cold Justice

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1969, solicitor James Jarvis booked a skiiing holiday in Switzerland. A brochure from Swan Tours Ltd. described the attractions in Mörlialp, Giswil, thus:

House Party Centre with special resident host. … Mörlialp is a most wonderful little resort on a sunny plateau … Up there you will find yourself in the midst of beautiful alpine scenery, which in winter becomes a wonderland of sun, snow and ice, with a wide variety of fine ski-runs, a skating rink and exhilarating toboggan run … Why did we choose the Hotel Krone … mainly and most of all because of the ‘Gemütlichkeit’ and friendly welcome you will receive from Herr and Frau Weibel. … The Hotel Krone has its own Alphütte Bar which will be open several evenings a week. … No doubt you will be in for a great time, when you book this houseparty holiday … Mr. Weibel, the charming owner, speaks English. …

All these House Party arrangements are included in the price of your holiday. Welcome party on arrival. Afternoon tea and cake for 7 days. Swiss dinner by candlelight. Fondue party. Yodeler evening. Chali farewell party in the ‘Alphütte Bar’. Service of representative.

He flew out on Dec. 20 and flew back on Jan. 3 in a bitter and unrefreshed state of mind. Mr. Weibel, the charming owner, certainly had not spoken English, and the vaunted house party had amounted to 13 people in the first week and zero in the second. In the subsequent lawsuit for breach of contract, Tom Denning, the Master of the Rolls, wrote:

So there was Mr. Jarvis, in the second week, in this hotel with no house party at all, and no one could speak English, except himself. He was very disappointed, too, with the ski-ing. It was some distance away at Giswil. There were no ordinary length skis. There were only mini-skis, about 3 ft. long. So he did not get his ski-ing as he wanted to. In the second week he did get some longer skis for a couple of days, but then, because of the boots, his feet got rubbed and he could not continue even with the long skis. So his ski-ing holiday, from his point of view, was pretty well ruined.

There were also no Swiss cakes, just crisps and little dry nut cakes. The ‘yodeler’ was a local man who came in work clothes and sang four or five songs quickly. The ‘Alphütte Bar’ was empty and only open one evening.

Jarvis had paid £63.45, and the trial judge, estimating that he’d received about half of what was promised, awarded him £31.72. But Denning went further: He judged that Jarvis’ disappointment in itself constituted a damage and deserved to be compensated. “I think the judge was in error in taking the sum paid for the holiday £63.45 and halving it. The right measure of damages is to compensate him for the loss of entertainment and enjoyment which he was promised, and which he did not get.” He awarded Jarvis £125.

(Jarvis v Swans Tours Ltd [1972] EWCA Civ 8 [16 October 1972])

Light and Shadow

A striking paragraph from A Woman’s Work Is Never Done, Caroline Davidson’s 1982 history of housework in the British Isles:

One woman actually entered the nascent electrical industry in the 1870s. Pretending to be a man (she assumed the name of Charles Torr) she rose to become managing director of a large Birmingham firm called Winfield’s which produced ornamental brass-work, chandeliers and fittings suitable for interior electric lighting. She joined a dining society of electrical engineers called the ‘Dynamicables’ where many of the problems facing the new industry were discussed. She obviously had the vision to see electricity’s brilliant future, as well as a flair for business and exceptional talent for concealing her sex. For, in the early 1880s, she approached Rookes E.B. Crompton with a proposal that their two firms should go into partnership; Compton’s was to carry out lighting installations and Winfield’s was to supply the capital and fitments. Her plans were extremely grand: she wanted to apply for a Parliamentary act to light Birmingham and to sell electrical goods world-wide. However, after the two firms had co-operated for several years, Winfield’s ran into financial difficulties and Charles Torr committed suicide: only then did her colleagues learn her true sex.

I haven’t been able to learn anything more. Davidson cites Crompton’s Reminiscences of 1928, which is unfortunately rare.

The Finger Pillory


Here’s a forgotten punishment. In the 17th century, in return for a minor offense such as not attending to a sermon, a wrongdoer might be required to place his finger into an L-shaped hole over which a block was fastened to keep the knuckle bent. “[T]he finger was confined, and it will easily be seen that it could not be withdrawn until the pillory was opened,” writes William Andrews in Medieval Punishments (1898). “If the offender were held long in this posture, the punishment must have been extremely painful.”

In his 1686 history of Staffordshire, Robert Plot recalls a “finger-Stocks” “made for punishment of the disorders, that sometimes attend feasting at Christmas time.” Into this “the Lord of misrule, used formerly to put the fingers of all such persons as committed misdemeanors, or broke such rules, as by consent were agreed on for the time of keeping Christmas, among servants and others of promiscuous quality.”

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 …