In 1954, a now-forgotten study was conducted that, looking back, reveals more about political thought than most voters care to admit. At a time when the debate surrounding human nature was not so imbued with meaning for ordinary folks, psychologist Muzafer Sherif wanted to see what human competition – and its evolutionary analogue, cooperation – might look like in its ‘purest’ state. Of course, this is impossible to truly test, for a variety of reasons, but it is possible to get clues, or at least be nudged a little closer towards them, if one merely puts one’s biases aside and looks at things anew.
Perhaps the hidden purpose of Sherif’s study was to look at group bonding over seemingly trivial things – emphasis on ‘seemingly’, as there’s an inner reason to words, rituals, and motifs which is frequently ignored. For the first portion of this test, he organized two groups of children in Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma, into a kind of summer camp, yet run in such a way that one group couldn’t guess the other group’s existence…at least not for a while. They were both supervised, but not excessively so, and thus left to find their own meaning. Despite being thought of as ordinary children, each group quickly developed an identity, a set of ‘arbitrary’ values, an agreed-upon hierarchy, and in-group cooperation as they staked out territory and passed the time hiking, swimming, and playing games. One group thought of itself as fighters who never cried. The other group adopted an almost puritanical refusal to use foul language. They both had rituals, songs, games, and territories they’d patrol, enjoy, or simply mull over. Yet as soon as the groups learned of each other’s existence, they quickly became even more tribal, growing upset when ‘their’ land was infringed upon, further emphasizing their own rituals, challenging the interlopers, and even starting fights with weapons that had to be taken away by the adults.
Now, it could be said that at least a part of all this was ritual war: an extension of men’s competitiveness into realms that only symbolized violence, thus serving as a safe outlet for ordinary urges. Or it could be said to be an example of something far more sinister, which, had the adults not been involved, would have led to the pointless attrition one sees in tribal groups today. At any rate, something in the kids ‘knew’ to behave in ways quite like the more well-known, violent specimens in the anthropological record. To be clear, these were not children who were competing over precious resources. They were not pressured by the environment to do this or that. They were not raised without culture, but came from families who at that point in human history had seen some of the lowest rates of violence ever known. Moreover, they were screened for good health and psychological standing, meaning, they could not easily be called sociopathic, or be manipulated by one or two sociopaths among them. More likely, … Continue reading →