In detail

The Thieves Cave Experiment

The Thieves Cave Experiment

The experiments of Social psychology They give us very useful information about the behavior of individuals. One of the most interesting that is called thieves cave experiment (Robbers Cave Experiment in English). Let's see better what it is.


  • 1 Investigating how the group works
  • 2 Bases of the experiment
  • 3 Phases of the experiment

Investigating how the group works

The thieves cave experiment is a classic in the field of social psychology. He studied and analyzed group membership relationships, non-group relationships and intergroup relationships.

Therefore, the experiment starts with the concept of a group and how people tend to behave while inside or outside it. He also analyzed the relationships established within that group.

The social psychologist Muzafer Sherif was the one who carried out the study, observing the conflicts and differences that arose between two groups and analyzing the process of cooperation and integration of two groups that are in conflict and have to be understood.

The researchers set out to conduct this study in their fascination with the group concept. To better understand this, we can define what is considered a group, since it is important to better understand the conclusions of the study.

The group can be defined as a basic social unit among people. The link can be of many types and the number of members can also vary. What unites them above all is that they share a set of norms and values ‚Äč‚Äčthat regulate their own behavior and that of the different members.

In this sense, the relationship of roles comes into play. That is, the role played by each member in this group and its level with respect to the rest. This role refers to the behavior patterns that the group imposes and expects from the individual in a given situation.

Basis of the experiment

This investigation was conducted in an outdoor space owned by the boy scouts, surrounded by the Robber's Cave State Park in the state of Oklahoma.

During the study, Sherif was introduced as a field guard. The study team was formed by a group of 22 male adolescents of 11 years of age with similar life experience. The boys were transferred to the place by buses in two groups of eleven people. Neither group knew of the other's existence. The boys were assigned in two areas quite distant from each other, so that during the first days the presence of the 'others' was ignored. The researchers had cut all the pre-existing friendship ties of each group, so that each boy's identification with his new group could be done more quickly.

The chocs themselves chose their group name, some called themselves "The Rattlers", the others "The Eagles". After two or three days, the two groups spontaneously developed internal social hierarchies.

The thieves' cave experiment consisted of three phases. The first one is membership formation, which consists in creating this feeling of belonging among the groups through activities that promote members to identify with it.

The second phase is friction. For this, some kind of conflict is generated between two groups already formed during the experiment and some tension is also created within the group itself, that is, at the intergroup level.

Finally, the third phase is the integration. What is pursued in this phase is bring together the two groups that were in conflict to try to cooperate in some activity and to achieve a joint objective.

None of the boys knew each other before the experiment, but very soon hostility was observed between the groups. This hostility was increased to the point where the study team ceased friction production activities due to the danger involved.

Phases of the experiment

First phase

As we have already said, at the start of the experiment, there were 22 11-year-old children of similar socioeconomic characteristics, without problems in their family structure, which were divided into two groups without any knowing of the existence of the other.

In the first phase They were urged to strengthen ties. For this they carried out joint activities and identity signs were established, such as flags, t-shirts and a name for their own group.

Second stage

In the second phase, that of friction, both groups were allowed to find out about the existence of the other group. They did this through competitive activities, which caused the children to enter into conflict with those of the other group.

The result was that there were incidents between them, as a strong feeling of violence and rejection towards the other group. Once this phase was finished, the next stage, the integration phase, began.

Third phase

Here is the most important part of the study, since the objective was to see how the process of reducing group tensions occurred. This was achieved and an interdependence relationship was established between the members of both groups.

To reduce friction and promote unity between the groups, Sherif devised and introduced tasks that required cooperation between the two. The proposed challenges included a problem of water shortage, a clogged field truck that you need and finding a film to screen it. These and other necessary collaborations caused hostile behavior to decrease. The groups were intertwined to the point that at the end of the experiment the boys insisted on returning home all on the same bus.


This study shows the ease with which hostility can be formed between groups and within them and is one of the most cited in the history of social psychology.

Thanks to this experiment, several observations could be established. One of them, in the first phase, could see how structures are formed and how each person acquires a role in a particular group.

In the friction phase the strength of stereotypes was observed, membership in a group and how a social distance is established with another group that is not considered equal. In the last part we could see how the groups tend to cooperate to achieve a superordinate objective.

In other words, researchers from the thieves' cave were able to see how establishing common problems and goals could establish a resolution for conflicts between groupss. From there, they developed the theory of realistic conflict.

In short, the thieves cave experiment is very useful to know and analyze the relationships of belonging to a group, non-group relationships and intergroup relationships. We hope this information has made everything clearer!


Sherif, M. (1954). Experimental study of positive and negative intergroup attitudes among experimentally produced groups: study of thief caves.

Sherif, M., Harvey, OJ, White, BJ, Hood, WR, and Sherif, CW (1961). Conflict and cooperation between groups: the thieves cave experiment (Vol. 10) Norman, OK: University of book exchange.

McLeod, SA (2008). Cave of thieves. //