The Robber’s Cave


I first heard of the Robber’s Cave Experiment in Don Beck’s Spiral Dynamics book (people are sighing, no more SD… Again, bear with me) – I didn’t know at the time what it meant although as it had such an intriguing title – made me think of pirates, smugglers and caves (a weird cocktail of Enid Blyton and Pirates of the Caribbean) I made a mental note to investigate; I came across the term again yesterday and read more.

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Unfortunately, it has nothing whatsoever to with robbers or caves although the reality is far from mundane.

In 1954 two American Social Psychologists, Muzafer Sherif and Carolyn Wood Sherif took a group of young ‘normal’ adolescent boys and split them into two teams; each not knowing of the others’ existence; the venue was the Robber’s Cave State Park in Oklahoma.

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Essentially, they showed that it is quite easy to get disparate groups of people – the same applies to adults as children, and combine into a teams that compete, especially when there is limited resource or a solitary prize; the camp ‘supervisors’ who were psychology students oversaw and manipulated the situations.

Very soon after the initial group forming and norming – that is acquiring their own identity and set of particular behaviours and beliefs, perhaps team name, symbols and leader, they were launched into competition with the other group.

Rapidly divisions arose between them and us and just like our current political divide people argue and fight over even the most trivial of things; my vote or yours, my opinion, my way or the…

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Humans have an incredible ability to group – this is our social, gregarious nature and equally, once that bond is formed it can be stunningly powerful, enough to keep people together even when they realise that they are either being manipulated (Brexit) or don’t want to continue.

A few blogs ago I wrote about the second level of the spiral – purple, this is the level of tribe and compared this with the Jewish sanction of excommunication; of pretending as if the person who is your son or daughter, husband or wife no longer exists and this being in many respects a punishment worse than anything and sufficient to maintain the in-group and order through the most restrictive and difficult times.


In the two groups they subsequently learned that the only way to restore cohesion was not to just force them to share the same accommodation or play together, but to generate a common goal, one which could only be achieved by collaboration – for example, an existential threat has the ability for people to put aside their differences and get on with things.

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I was talking recently to my son about this; his cynical interpretation was, ‘Should we have another World War?’ – given that WW2 has led to the longest period, in modern times of global peace and prosperity we have known (so long as you aren’t in one of the countries neglected or manipulated by the West.)

Unfortunately, or gosh, fortunately, war is no longer feasible; at least along the lines of 1914 or 39; we would very quickly destroy everything, we use battles of words these days which are far less harmful (mostly), yet, they don’t have the value of bringing us together – even, the threat of Climate Change has still not penetrated the thick skulls of some national leaders (what more do they want?)


It was my friend Claudius who made me consider the current UK political situation in this light; we have Left and Right, fighting, squabbling, in ways that would be embarrassing were they children when the super-ordinate goal (the big one that unifies us) hasn’t been defined.


Part of this is perhaps the times; for although we (citizens of the UK), the fifth largest economy in the world have some of the greatest deprivation and variations in life expectancy the general theme is we are OK.


I saw a kid crossing the road yesterday; smartphone in hand. It struck me that I have noticed far fewer crazy teenage jay-walkers recently and it made me wonder whether the fear of having their phones damaged has made them pay more attention to the world (when the machine itself hasn’t taken over and absorbed them wholly at which point anything can happen). The addictive phone moment is the Opium that was once religion.


So long as the material flow of things, either in cash or on credit continues we are unlikely to feel a significant pinch; like the boiling-frog concept, time passes too slowly for most to notice.

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Before we know it, October 2019 will have happened and nothing has developed or changed, we are still as divided as in 2016 (the UK that is), despite the reality that we are en-masse participants in a Robber’s Cave Experiment that is UK democracy.

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We prefer to fight and disagree than collaborate;

What will it take?


In the Robber’s Cave, the kids came together in the end by finding a goal that could only be achieved in collaboration – as a team and it is just as likely that society will only progress if we (that is people, UK citizens, Europeans or whatever) find a similar goal – realising that division tears us apart and no one can win at such times.

This does all relate to the spiral and I will return to explaining/defining the different levels shortly; for now, most people still I imagine believe that I am investing in Cloud-cuckoo-land.

There is a point to all of this.

I promise.


You can see a film of the study here.

Published by rodkersh1948

Trying to understand the world, one emotion at a time.

One thought on “The Robber’s Cave

  1. What an interesting experiment. Do we never learn? What will now ease the poverty inequalities and what will bring the political divisions together? So much almost worship of individual power, status riches, given so much attention by newsfeed and other programmes.
    There are excellent individuals and groups working from the ground up as it were, such as Project Echo, and others – support them !


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