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A Famous Experiment Shows How ‘Enemies’ Can Become Friends Overnight

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In 1954, psychologists uncovered a method to turn even the worst of rivals into friends.

In 1954, psychologists assembled 22 fifth-grade boys, split them into two camps, and observed how rivalry turned to friendship.

This was the famous Robbers Cave Experiment. The boys were quartered in Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma, with an interesting twist—neither group knew of the other’s existence. In the first week, the groups bonded in isolation through activities like swimming, hiking, and playing. Eventually, the groups named themselves the “Eagles” and the other the “Rattlers,” proudly displaying their new names on their shirts and flags.

With the groups established, the second phase of the experiment began: The Eagles and the Rattlers were made aware of each other’s existence. The outcome? They met and immediately began competing. They engaged in games like tug-of-war, touch football, and scavenger hunts, and as they competed, their hostility escalated.

The conflict began with name-calling and quickly intensified. The boys were setting each other’s flags on fire and throwing rocks, preparing for an all-out brawl. The experimenters had to intervene and separate the boys. After all, it was a psychological experiment, not a war simulation.

Next came the challenge of reconciliation. This marked the beginning of Phase 3. Initially, the boys were encouraged to interact through films and play, but this “mere contact” approach proved inadequate, often leading to further conflicts.

This called for a new approach. The experimenters introduced cooperative tasks that required both groups to collaborate toward shared goals. One task involved unlocking a faucet to resolve a water shortage problem. Another required pooling funds together for a movie both groups wanted to see. By the evening, the Eagles and Rattlers were friends—they shook hands, dined together, and even shared a few malts while watching the film.

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The three phases of realistic conflict theory, as indicated in the Robber’s Cave experiment. (The Epoch Times)

“People that band together for a superordinate goal can transcend obstacles or differences that seem less important in the face of a challenge,” Robert Backer, a research scientist with a doctorate in psychology and neuroscience, told The Epoch Times.

As seen in the Robber Cave Experiment, these shared goals effectively reduced hostility and drastically improved group relations. The results transformed the understanding of group dynamics and, in a surprising way, provide insight into the value of Independence Day.

The Ties That Bind Americans

Despite many Americans describing the country as “divided” and “polarized,” recent polls show enduring feelings of pride and optimism. In 2023, 87 percent of Americans celebrated Independence Day, with a significant majority expressing strong patriotic sentiments. Additionally, an international survey found that the United States is among the most patriotic countries in the world.

Mr. Backer associated the reconciliation among the boys in Oklahoma with the unity seen in the United States, where diverse individuals unite through the shared values of freedom and opportunity.

The 20th century reshaped the American identity, moving from an ethnically focused nationality to an increasingly civic nationality. Today, in public discourse and literature, the United States is recognized as a country based on and sustained by civic nationalism. Interestingly, ethnic nationalism, which is based on shared ethnic ancestry, correlates with lower social capital and trust. In contrast, civic nationalism, grounded in shared values, goals, and respect for a country’s institutions, fosters trust and social capital.
Among the civic values and institutions shared by Americans, a large majority take pride in scientific achievements (91 percent), the military (89 percent), culture and arts (85 percent), and sporting achievements (73 percent).
Just as achievements can unify, external challenges to a group can also increase patriotism. For example, self-reported patriotism surged following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The percentage of Americans who were “Extremely Proud to Be American” peaked at 69 and 70 percent between 2002 and 2003. This surge highlights how external threats can foster a strong sense of unity and national pride, drawing people together in the face of adversity.

Moreover, genuine rituals unite people.

For example, we associate red, white, and blue with valor, purity, and justice—symbols embodied by the national flag. Similarly, Thanksgiving, often linked with turkey, gravy, and eggnog, fundamentally celebrates gratitude, generosity, and social connection.

“But some people say that our rituals are arbitrary. If you’re gonna light a Christmas tree, you might as well just decorate a flagpole. It’s just the same thing. It’s interchangeable. The thing is that rituals build common bonds, and they have meaning and significance,” said Mr. Backer.

“When we have no routine, no rituals, no reminders of things that are important to us, we feel psychologically uneasy because we don’t know what our identity is and what our place is in the world,” he added.

Consequently, rituals buffer these psychological maladies, yielding significant health benefits. They help to regulate emotions, boost motivation, and reinforce social bonds.

A Healthier Type of Pride

The Robbers Cave Experiment also illustrates how pride can be negatively and positively expressed, Mr. Backer said.

Research indicates that pride comes in two forms: authentic and hubristic. These have distinct impacts on interpersonal relationships, as well as mental health.

Authentic pride is rooted in genuine self-esteem and correlates positively with social connection and mental health. It is exemplified by thoughts like, “I did well because I worked hard.” It reflects a sense of accomplishment based on one’s efforts and abilities, fostering positive relationships and well-being.

Hubristic pride stems from an inflated sense of self-importance and is illustrated by thoughts like, “I did well because I’m great.” This type of pride is pernicious, leading to aggression, poor relationship quality, attachment insecurity, and trait anxiety.

Moreover, authentic pride is associated with positive moral behavior such as cooperation, fair play, and acknowledging others’ contributions. In contrast, hubristic pride leads to cheating, deception, and undermining others, driven by arrogance and egotism. They explicitly boast about their abilities and accomplishments but are internally dissatisfied, feeling socially uncomfortable, anxious about relationships, and insecure about being liked.

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Mr. Backer explained, “Inwardly when they [people with hubristic pride] see things associated with themselves, the regions of the brain that would normally show a pleasurable response don’t light up the same way. There’s this disconnect, where people are trying to work their way towards high self-esteem or pretend their way towards it, but they’re falling short because they’re missing an actual positive attitude about themselves.”

He suggests that these divergences of pride—authentic versus hubristic—can manifest in broader group dynamics and similarly result in positive or negative consequences.

Humans naturally exhibit a cognitive bias that favors things associated with themselves, explained Mr. Backer. “Within 300 seconds, the brain is categorizing ‘my group versus your group.’” For instance, if a pencil bears your name, you naturally start to notice things about that pencil and view it more favorably just because it is associated with you, he added.

Similarly, noticing commonalities with another person or group allows one to view them more favorably, recognize other people’s importance, and foster a sense of broader pride. Mr. Backer suggests this characteristic is indicative of authentic pride.

Conversely, hubristic pride within a group can lead to overconfidence, reckless risk-taking without regard for others, and a narrow or careless perspective of other groups. Moreover, this kind of pride encourages a competitive mindset where groups perceive themselves as competing for limited resources rather than working together to create more opportunities.

With authentic pride, “You have a mindset of expanding the pie that everybody’s trying to take a piece from, as opposed to dividing up a finite pie, where either you get it or the other person gets it,” said Mr. Backer.

Like the Eagles and Rattlers, everyone experiences phases of division and unity. These can occur at home, in the workplace, or in a broader social context. Yet they offer opportunities for mutual understanding and profound reconciliation. At the end of the Robbers Cave experiment, one Rattlers member remarked to the Eagles’ leader, “You never thought we’d be eating together?” The reply was laughter, highlighting the unexpected and joyful resolution of their conflicts.

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