Magazine article The Spectator

'The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif's Robbers Cave Experiment', by Gina Perry - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif's Robbers Cave Experiment', by Gina Perry - Review

Article excerpt

Gina Perry is the eminent psychologist who blew apart Stanley Milgram's shocking revelations from his 1961 research. Milgram had caused a sensation by alleging that 65 per cent of volunteers had been willing to inflict painful, dangerous electric shocks on others. He drew direct analogies between this ostensible blind obedience to commands to inflict pain/harm on others and that of Nazi functionaries.

Perry found that Milgram had misrepresented his results: in fact, 60 per cent of his subjects had disobeyed instructions and refused to continue; while those who had, were pressed into doing so despite protests, sometimes being ordered 25 times to keep going, or told lies, such as that the recipient of the shocks was fine. Others had suspected throughout that the experiment was a hoax. It was: no one was hurt.

In her mesmerising new book, Perry investigates another psychological experiment that turns out to have been less than honest in its published findings, and unethical in its treatment of subjects. Disturbingly, the subjects were children -- boys, aged between ten and 12, who, through the course of three summer camps in Oklahoma, between 1949 and 1954, were manipulated into conforming to behaviour that would verify the theories of the chief researcher, an enigmatic, volatile and obsessive psychologist called Muzafer Sherif. Results that did not corroborate Sherif's findings were discarded, and intrusive and disturbing adult interventions were introduced covertly to engineer the behaviour Sherif wanted to see in the boys -- even when that was distress, anger and violence.

Sherif's theory was that when different groups are competing for limited resources, animosity and conflict break out between them, which frequently erupt into violence. Within each group, behaviour tends to echo that of the leader, whether autocratic and cruel or democratic and calm.

Neither parents nor boys were ever told the true aim of the camps. They were presented with euphemisms, such as that their child had been selected for a project looking for leadership qualities.

Boys were driven hours away, with strict instructions to their families not to visit. Often, the boys made close friendships initially, only for these to be brutally torn apart by the researchers, who separated friends in an effort to demonstrate that team loyalty overrode previously close friendships. …

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