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How a Wild 1950s Summer Camp Experiment Unlocked the Key to Teamwork and Trust

A devious psychological experiment pitted two camps of kids against each other. The lessons they learned about breaking down building barriers and building trust have never been more important.

If you're looking to build trust between teams in your organization, you'd be smart to pay attention to what happened at a summer camp more than half a century ago.

In 1954, Muzafer Sherif, an early pioneer of social psychology, conducted a devious experiment. He and some colleagues set up a three-week summer camp for a bunch of twelve-year-old boys from Oklahoma. The location was Robbers Cave, a famous woodland hideout of Jesse James. 

Sherif separated the boys into two groups of eleven. For a week, neither group knew about the other—the kids went about cooking, hiking, and playing games in the woods. They each formed their own leadership and named themselves the Rattlers and the Eagles.

Gradually, the scientists made the boys aware of each other. This immediately solidified each group against the other. When the Rattlers, for example, heard the Eagles playing baseball, they groaned and complained. They called them “bums” and “communists.” The Eagles, in turn, referred to the Rattlers as “stinkers.” The camp counselors stoked the animosity by making the groups play tug-of-war and football against each other. Soon the groups were pilfering from each other’s cabins and throwing garbage at one another.

Sherif was one of the first scientists to note that group dynamics like this create what’s called “perceptual distortion.” Just learning the existence of another distinct group could foster bias. His research was the beginning of what we understand today of in-group and out-group psychology.

When perceptual distortion happens, the differences between members of the same group get minimized and even ignored. “Members of the same category seem to be more similar than they actually are and more similar than they were before they were categorized together,” wrote psychologists Samuel Gaertner and John Dovidio. 

Meanwhile, the differences of the out-group get exaggerated and overgeneralized. “Positive behaviors and successful outcomes are more likely to be attributed to internal, stable characteristics (the personality) of in-group than out-group members,” they continued. “Whereas negative outcomes are more likely to be ascribed to the personalities of out-group members than of in-group members.”

Sounds like a description of racism, sexism, or any other -ism, doesn’t it? It is.

So it went with the Eagles and the Rattlers. Before long, the boys were walking around camp with sticks, bats, and socks filled with rocks. Fistfights and food fights broke out.

When perceptual distortion happens, the differences between members of the same group get minimized and even ignored. Meanwhile, the differences of the out-group get exaggerated and overgeneralized.

Then the camp counselors sabotaged the water supply so nobody had anything to drink. The counselors said they suspected a leak or clog somewhere along the pipe between camp and the water tank above it. They would need each boy’s help to find it.

From conflict to collaboration

The boys split up along their in-group lines to search for a solution. As the counselors planned, everyone ended up at the source of the problem by the water tank. It took several boys from both groups to unclog it. Afterward, everyone was so pleased that nobody fought over who got to drink first. They still walked back to camp separately, though.

So far so good, the experimenters must have thought.

Next, the counselors informed the group they were going to rent the film Treasure Island for all the boys to watch. But they were fifteen dollars short. Even though a couple of Eagles had gone home and the groups were now uneven, the boys agreed to pony up an equal amount per group to get the movie for everyone. They were learning to cooperate around superordinate goals—a goal that exceeds all others.

Then, during an expedition to the lake, the camp truck that was supposed to get the food “wouldn’t start.” The boys were all hungry, so they decided to use their tug-of-war rope together to pull the truck to jump-start it. The counselor faked the engine failure and jump-start. As the truck roared to life, the boys cheered, “We won the tug-of-war against the truck!” They patted each other on the back and didn’t segregate themselves in the queue for food when it arrived.

This was a turning point. The boys were starting using the term “we” to refer to everyone instead of just their own group. The experimenters called this “decategorization and recategorization.” As the boys worked together on the shared goals, they began to get to know each other as individuals. This started breaking down their category stereotypes. The Rattlers weren’t so bad, it turned out. Nor were the Eagles. 

At this point, something crucial happened. The boys did what the researchers called “mutual differentiation.” They began to recognize strengths that individuals had (such as one boy who was good at cutting meat) and that each group had (such as different camp songs they could teach each other).

As the boys worked together on the shared goals, they began to get to know each other as individuals.

This led to a “more respectful appreciation of differences between the groups.” Instead of seeing their differences as problems, they saw them as potential assets for the group. The boys didn’t just find common goals and unique strengths, they developed respect.

By the end of the camp, the boys still defined themselves as Eagles or Rattlers, but they began to think of both sides as subgroups of a bigger group they all belonged to. 

“During breakfast and lunch on the last day of camp, the seating was without regard to earlier group membership as it was on the bus ride home to Oklahoma City,” the researchers noted. “The boys crowded close together toward the front of the bus as a single group singing Oklahoma.”

The power of a superordinate goal and trusting intentions

With this experiment, we can picture how superordinate goals get different people to work together. We can also see the importance of developing a mutual respect for our differences. Because to succeed, we need to break down the walls between human categories and see ourselves as part of a superordinate group.

The boys in the camp shared some values, like the idea of taking turns and fairness, but they didn’t see eye to eye on everything. That didn’t matter by the end. They learned to respect each other and see themselves as both Rattlers and Eagles, and something bigger.

The psychological purpose of in-groups is to help human beings know when they can trust each other’s intentions. This helps us feel safe enough to take the risks we need to make progress. This is in part why mission-driven organizations that provide the team with a shared goal are more productive and profitable. When we unify our teams around a superordinate goal, we're more likely to trust each other's intentions.

There’s an important point of distinction about this kind of superordinate group trust that’s worth emphasizing. Trusting in a person’s ability is one thing. We don’t need to be in the same group to do this. But trusting someone’s intentions—as the best teams do—is quite powerful.

When we unify our teams around a superordinate goal, we're more likely to trust each other's intentions.

When we trust someone’s intentions, it’s suddenly all right if they are different—if they believe different things, have different goals from time to time, or even if they make mistakes. With that kind of respect, we are able to have cognitive friction without things becoming personal and blowing up. We can be free to dissent or disagree or correct each other, because we start from a place of, “I know you don’t mean any harm to me.”

As the world of work changes and we figure out how to bring together teams all over the world, these lessons have never been more important.

Shane Snow is the bestselling author of Dream Teams, from which this story was adapted. Currently, Shane is the CEO of the film tech company SHOWRUNNER, which helps filmmaking teams work smarter together.

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