Lessons Learned at Robbers Cave

Raise your hand if you’ve been to summer camp.

Raise your hand if you’ve sent your child to summer camp.

Raise your hand if you’ve unwittingly been part of a psychological experiment on human behavior.

Most people haven’t been used as guinea pigs in behavioral science experiments, but that’s exactly what was on my mind as I visited one of the most beautiful spots in Oklahoma, a scenic landscape tucked away near the eastern edge of the state.

Robbers Cave State Park sits roughly five miles north of the little town of Wilburton, Oklahoma. I stayed there while visiting Robbers Cave and I tried to find something interesting to write about it without much success. That’s more a failure of my investigative skills (and limited time there) than it is a knock on Wilburton. Here are two things that are interesting about the history of the town: it was named for a man named Will Burton. Yes, really. I’m not sure why, but that tickles me to no end. It would be like if Pennsylvania’s biggest city was named after a dude named Phil Adelphia. You know, the upper west side Adelphia’s, they were good, solid church people. Thing number two about Wilburton: more than 55 years ago, in 1960, a nasty tornado rushed into the town and killed thirteen people, injuring many others. There are people who still remember it, and I don’t blame them.

All of that is backdrop however, because Wilburton came after my trip to Robbers Cave State Park, seeing as Oklahoma State Highway 2 took me there first. I arrived at the park over the holidays and was glad to have no snow or ice to contend with. There were a lot of people though, which is why I had to stay in Will Burton’s town. There were no affordable rooms or cabins at the State Park.

Robbers Cave State Park is 8,200 acres of hilly woodlands. It’s home to three lakes, several rock formations, a river, caves, streams, and lots of squirrels. I’m told there are deer, elk, coyotes, and possibly even some wolves in these thick woods. I didn’t see any, but I did almost step on a rabbit who was the exact same color as the path I was walking. Nice camouflage, little fella! At any rate, this place is very beautiful, and in some ways it reminded me of my native Michigan. To my delight, unlike other portions of Oklahoma, it offers a wide variety of colors from our rainbow, as opposed to just brown and red. Hello, greens and blues!

In the years after the Civil War, several outlaws, some of them infamous, used the area as a hideout. One of them was the dame Belle Starr, who seemed like a real peach of a girl to bring home to Ma:. she robbed several stage coaches, stole horses, and reportedly killed three or four men, one because he accused her of being a horse thief, which of course she was. Sometimes it sucks to speak the truth. Starr hid in the caves located here, once after making an escape from sheriff’s custody. Eventually she was shot and killed by a man named “Pistol Pete.” The irony.

During that same era, there was also Jesse James, an outlaw from Missouri, who would ride down to Oklahoma (called Indian Territory back then) to rob folks and hide out in this area. James was an inventive criminal: he would often use disguise, such as wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood while robbing banks so folks would get mad at that hateful organization rather than suspect a measley gunslinger like him. Sneaking away into the caves here helped him in the short run, but eventually he too was filled with lead. Bang bang.

As a result of this rascally heritage, the park earned the name Robbers Cave, but not until 1936. Previously it was named after James Latimer, a prominent citizen from Wilburton. But Latimer has a county named after him, so his ghost shouldn’t complain.

The caves at Robbers Cave are quite a trek off the primary trails, but well worth it. I looked for signs of Starr’s or James’s presence, maybe a stray bullet or a spur, but imagine my surprise when nothing presented itself. Actually, there isn’t much to these caves that you wouldn’t see in your standard cave hideout, other than several feet of walls, craggy footholds, and a musty smell that reminded me of my high school locker.

In June of 1957 twenty-two boys were delivered to Robbers Cave for “summer camp.” They were split evenly into two groups of eleven. That’s eleven peach-fuzzed eleven and twelve-year olds, ready to have a grand old time. Which I think they did, though they didn’t have any idea that they were being watched.

At first, the two groups had no idea that the other group existed. Each mini-camp was isolated from each other within a 200-acre section of the park. The “camp counselors” were actually research personnel, trained to observe human behavior. They took detailed notes on their subjects and met each night to coordinate the experiment. It was all masterminded by Muzafer Sherif, a Turkish-American who was a pioneer in the field of social psychology. Sherif selected the children for the experiment very carefully: he wanted normal boys who were essentially well balanced emotionally and came from similar economic and social backgrounds. All of the children were from middle class Oklahoman families. They were all white, protestant, and from two-parent homes. They had similar sibling structures, and they were all average to above average students. They were strangers to one another.

It was called Realistic Conflict Theory (RCT), and that’s what Sherif and his minions were testing at Robbers Cave back in 1957 in their faux summer camp. It was a three-stage process:

(1) Bond the individual groups separately by having them participate in hiking, fishing, and team-building exercises that created friendships and loyalties to each other. They called this “ingroup formation”

(2) This was called the “friction phase” — the groups were introduced to each other and entered into direct competition with each other in games like baseball and footraces. The winners were showered with prizes, special privileges, and praise. This caused the losing group to feel inferior and soon that group had hostile feelings toward the other. In one instance, after being defeated in baseball, the losing group returned to the field and destroyed the other team’s flag, which in turned royally pissed off the winning group, and so on. There were even instances of boys intimidating their own group members because they didn’t do well enough in the competitions.

(3) The two groups were integrated and forced to work together on tasks that required teamwork. This “integration phase” caused the tensions between the groups to wane.

After several weeks, what did Sherif learn from this RCT study, the first of its kind anywhere? Well, it went exactly how he had predicted. At that time, psychologists and scientists believed that most conflict arose because of the inherent differences in two groups. Wars were fought, they said, because two groups had differences so stark that they were bound to be at odds, whether it be racial, religious, or economic. Bur Sherif didn’t think so. He felt that conflict could be driven by direct competition over resources even among groups that were basically the same. He theorized that when people (of any color, race, or creed) were placed in competition with people who looked, talked, and felt just like they did, they would enter into conflict with them if resources were imbalanced. The experiment supported this. He wrote that “because the groups were created to be approximately equal, individual differences are not necessary or responsible for intergroup conflict to occur.” Rather, he noted “hostile and aggressive attitudes toward an outgroup arise when groups compete for resources that only one group can attain.” Interestingly, Sherif learned that contact with an outgroup was not enough for the hostility to disappear. You had to have the two groups work toward a common goal. Sherif was actually quite astonished at how quickly the boys lost their hostility toward each other after coming together and working in unison on tasks. The boys did things such as clearing trails, cutting wood, and painting lodges.

As a result of his work at Robbers Cave and elsewhere, Sherif helped contribute to the understanding of how groups of people behave and interact. His studies have helped formulate policy in the areas of crime, politics, welfare, city planning, the military, and also how companies can create a workplace that promotes healthy cooperation, just to name a few.

By the way, the parents were in on it. They went in knowing that little Bobby or little Davy were part of a social experiment. Not sure if they got paid, but maybe they just enjoyed the kid-free time that summer.

You don’t have to know about Muzafer Sherif’s experiment or Jesse James or who shot Belle Starr to enjoy the beauty of Robbers State Park, by the way. And I suggest you visit this beautiful spot if you ever have the opportunity. The park is open every day of the year except Christmas and the folks who manage the park are friendly and helpful.

But knowing about Realistic Conflict Theory and “ingroups” and those twenty-two boys back in ’57, it did make me wonder as I looked out on Lake Carlton, one of three bodies of water here in the park. I wondered this: “Did the boys have fun?”