09/30/2008 10:37 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Robber's Cave and Higher Ground

Does the name Robber's Cave ring a bell? No, it doesn't refer to a bar on Wall Street, or a back room for Washington lobbyists. Robber's Cave is the name of a State Park in Oklahoma where Wild West outlaws Jesse James and Belle Star once hid from the law. It was the site of a famous study of group conflict carried out in 1954 by the late social psychologist Musafer Sherif and his colleagues at the University of Oklahoma. That study of two groups of boys at a summer camp may help us understand partisan politics and how working together to solve the current economic crisis might even shift political action to higher ground.

Sherif's study involved two groups of 11 fifth grade boys, well-matched for race, religion, intelligence, and social class. He had two hypotheses:

1. When people who don't know each other come together with a common goal they will form a hierarchical group structure with specific roles.

2. If two such groups are brought together in a competitive and frustrating enterprise (like Republicans and Democrats trying to craft a 700 billion dollar bailout without incurring the wrath of furious voters) the out-group will be subject to hostile attitudes and bullying by the in-group. These attitudes will be standardized and shared to various degrees by other group members.

Each group of boys was allowed to interact over the course of several days and form its respective leadership hierarchy. The two of which dubbed itself "The Rattlers" and the other "The Eagles"...were then brought together in athletic competition. It didn't take long before they began to call each other nasty names, hurl insults, throw food, raid one another's cabins, and even burn each other's flags. They finally refused even to eat together.

I understand this kind of demonizing. In the 1950's I was chased home from fifth grade by a group of boys who called me a dirty Jew and accused me of killing Jesus who, of course, I'd never even met. Not that the facts changed their minds. They were the in-group and I was the out-group until my parents put me in another school.

What Sherif demonstrated is that we adopt, at least to a degree, the mindset of our group. Driving in conservative northern California last week I listened to right-wing talk radio...mostly because NPR didn't come in there. One caller asserted smugly that liberal thinking was a genetic illness. The talk show host agreed. As a scientist, and a caring human being, I was appalled. Will we have a holocaust of the intelligent next? Will those of us who believe in science get sent to "re-education camps?"

Groupthink is a serious problem all right...and we are all capable of it to some degree. When I moved from Boston to Boulder 16 years ago a colleague sent me a postcard. "It's dangerous to live in such a liberal place," he wrote, "because you'll make the mistake of believing that everyone thinks the way you do." That's true. It's why I force myself to watch Fox News from time to time. But is there a way that we can think beyond the confines of our group, stop bullying one another (and yes, I own my own prejudicial attitudes), and work toward a common good?

Sherif and his colleagues found a way. They staged a series of small crises that the two groups of boys had to overcome together. The most important was a failure of the camp water supply that left all the boys thirsty. When, after considerable combined effort the water finally flowed again, the two groups had come to see each other as human beings. Insults stopped for the most part, boys on opposite teams made friends, the two groups ate together, and at the end of the two-and-a-half week camp session they all insisted on traveling home on the same bus.

Like it or not, as the old saying goes, we are all Bozos on the same bus. If it crashes, liberals and conservatives will perish together. If it brings us to higher ground, we will all thrive together and bring our children and grandchildren with us.

Critics of the Robber's Cave experiment muse that if the two groups had failed to achieve their superordinate goal (turning the water back on for the campers; turning the credit back on for the Congress) then the groups would have blamed each other. The Democrats have already thought of that. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi remains insistent that Republicans take an equal role in crafting the bailout of what she calls Bush's failed financial plan, lest Democrats take the fall for any fallout. But no matter whose stupidity and cupidity got us into this monumental hole to begin with, lets hope that raising our sights and solving the problem together might actually bring us to a shared vision for a better future.

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