Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma may be best known today for its picturesque lakes and trails, but for three weeks in 1954, the park was also the setting for one of the most famous experiments in social psychology. In the Robbers Cave experiment, Muzafer Sherif and his colleagues at the University of Oklahoma recruited 22 boys, all fifth-graders from similar social backgrounds, to attend what they billed as a specially designed summer camp.
The boys were immediately split into two groups: the Eagles and the Rattlers. For the first week, the teams were kept on separate ends of the camp while they participated in a variety of bonding activities. The boys didn’t find out about the other team’s existence until the start of the second week. Having never met each other, the boys quickly began to refer to the other team as “outsiders” and “intruders.”
Following a series of competitive games, the boys’ rivalry grew more intense. They started hurling insults, calling each other “pigs,” “sissies,” and “cheaters.” Their perception of reality mutated. When researchers asked the Eagles and Rattlers to gather up beans from the ground and compare photos of how many each group collected, the boys bragged that their team outmatched the other. In reality, the photos showed the same number of beans for each group.
Fueled by competition and social isolation, the teams raided their rival’s cabins late at night. The Eagles burned the Rattlers flag; some boys started collecting rocks to throw at the others. Worried about physical injury, the experimenters called off the competitions.
Incredibly, 20% of Democrats and 16% of Republicans said they believed on occasion that the country would be better off if large numbers of the opposition died.
More than 60 years later, the Robbers Cave study stands as a metaphor for today’s hyperpartisan politics. Seemingly every policy debate is a competition between two intensely hostile teams. Those on the right and left oppose compromise by their political leaders, view the other party as extreme and uncivil, and believe that their side should benefit the most from any decision.
A recent study by Lilliana Mason and Nathan P. Kalmoe, political scientists at the University of Maryland and Louisiana State University, found that more than 40% of Americans surveyed viewed the opposing party as “downright evil.” Incredibly, 20% of Democrats and 16% of Republicans said they believed on occasion that the country would be better off if large numbers of the opposition died.
In other extreme examples, party loyalists dehumanized their political adversaries, Mason and Kalmoe found. In the case of both parties, nearly one out of five survey respondents agreed with the statement that their political opponents “lack the traits to be considered fully human — they behave like animals.”
According to that same study, if the opposing party won the 2020 election, 18% of Democrats and 14% of Republicans reported they believed violence would be justified.
The best-educated and informed partisans tend to be the most intensely tribal, engaging in “my side” reasoning that prioritizes victory over a desire for the greater good. Research shows that the most well-informed partisans are quick to endorse their party’s policy positions, not as a matter of principle but, as New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall writes, “as a public act designed to signal their tribal loyalty as a Democrat or Republican.”
On no other issue are such animosities, prejudices, and biases more prevalent, and more problematic, than on climate change.