Muzafer Sherif: Robber's Cave Experiment & Autokinetic Effect

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Tara DeLecce

Tara has taught Psychology and has a master's degree in evolutionary psychology.

Have you ever heard the phrase 'Why can't we all just get along?' Muzafer Sherif wanted to find ways to make groups cooperate more readily and succeeded with the famous Robbers Cave experiment. He was also known for research on group dynamics, including an experiment using an illusion known as the autokinetic effect.

We also recommend watching Social Loafing & Social Facilitation: Definition and Effects of Groups and Charles Horton Cooley: Looking Glass Self and the Effect of Primary Groups

Muzafer Sherif

Muzfer Sherif
Muzafer Sherif

Muzafer Sherif was born in 1906 in Izmir, Turkey. He earned a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in his native country but then went on to earn his Ph.D. at Columbia University in America. After his education, he engaged in research and teaching both in Turkey and America, which has now earned him the prestige of being known as one of the founders of social psychology.

Sherif's work mainly focused on the nature of groups and their members. More specifically, he was interested in understanding inner group conflict, negative prejudices, and competition between groups. Sherif died in 1988 at the age of 82 and was best known for his Robbers Cave experiment and autokinetic effect research, which will be explained below in more detail.

The Robbers Cave Experiment

The Robbers Cave experiment was a famous study that revealed an important way of encouraging cooperation between groups. In this experiment, 22 young boys were sent to a 'summer camp' in Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma. Although it was presented to the boys as a summer camp, it was really designed to be an experiment about group cooperation.

The boys involved did not know each other before arriving to the campground. They were separated into two groups, and each group spent their nights in separate cabins far away from each other. The two groups were isolated and did not interact during the first week of camp. The members of each group established strong bonds with one another by doing activities together such as hiking and swimming. Each group even gave themselves a name (The Eagles and The Rattlers) and stitched their group name onto shirts and flags.

After this week of bonding, The Eagles and The Rattlers were brought together and were involved in various competitions against each other. The winning group was promised trophies and medals. During the four days of competitions, the groups began to show escalating levels of prejudice toward each other. This prejudice began in a verbal form in which the boys would call the members of the opposing group 'sneaky' or 'smart-alecky stinkers.' From there, The Eagles burned The Rattlers' flag. In retaliation, The Rattlers ransacked The Eagles' cabin and stole their private property.

Sherif had succeeded in his goal of creating prejudice between the groups, but now came the part of the experiment where he had to reduce the prejudice and get the two groups to cooperate. This was done through making the two groups engage in activities to achieve superordinate goals, or tasks that needed to be done for the good of both groups.

One example of a superordinate goal was to move a stalled truck that Sherif knew was not in good working condition. One group of boys alone was not strong enough to move the truck, so both groups of boys had to work together to push the truck to a desired location. After the superordinate goals, the two groups became friends and the previous prejudice disappeared.

Autokinetic Effect

Sherif noticed that people often debate about whether lights that look like stars in the night sky are moving or not. Influenced by this, he devised what is now known as the autokinetic effect experiment. He had groups of people sit in a dark room and watch a pinpoint of light. Afterward, he asked the people how far the pinpoint or dot of light had moved. This is an illusion because in reality the dot of light did not move at all; however, to the human eye it appears to move.

The purpose of this experiment was not related to the illusion itself, but rather to how people's opinions influence one another. When the people in the room were given a chance to discuss how far the dot of light had apparently moved, people who started out saying 2 inches began to change their opinion and say a bigger distance. Similarly, people who started out saying the dot had moved 6 inches began to change that report to a smaller distance until everyone seemed to report roughly the same distance.

Sherif also compared people's reports of apparent motion of the dot of light when they were alone so he could compare, and when people are alone they were more likely to report much bigger or much smaller measurements than when they were in a group setting. This supports the notion that people's opinions are influenced and easily changed by those around them.

Lesson Summary:

Muzafer Sherif was considered one of the founders of social psychology whose research largely focused on the nature of groups and their members. Specific research on this subject included one of his most famous experiments known as the Robbers Cave experiment in which two rival groups of boys at a summer camp were made to work together on tasks toward goals that were beneficial to both groups.

Additionally, Sherif was also known for his research involving the autokinetic effect, which is the illusion of apparent motion of a dot of light against a dark background when in reality it is not moving at all. The main point of the research was to see how people's opinions influence each other. In this case, groups that were asked how far the dot of light moved would discuss and often change their answers until everyone's answer was rather similar, showing that people's opinions are easily changed by the influence of others.

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