The story of a Turkish-American social psychologist who devised experiments to reveal the sources of brutality.
While conducting research in the Archives of the History of American Psychology, Australian psychologist Perry (Culture and Communication/Univ. of Melbourne; Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments, 2013) came across the papers of Muzafer Sherif (1906-1988), a noted psychologist who devoted his life to proving that tribal loyalty and peer pressure shape conflict and reconciliation. Sherif, Perry discovered, was a complicated, often abrasive man who could be demanding and, at times, charming; he pursued his work “with a singular focus and an apparently unshakeable faith in his own theory” about the cause of brutality. The contradictions of his personality intrigued the author, as did his experiments, in which young boys were brought to a specially designed summer camp, induced to form friendships, then goaded into competition with one another to foment hatred, and finally manipulated into cooperating to solve a common threat. Sherif and his researchers interacted with the boys in various roles, taking detailed notes. Reading that material, Perry became disturbed about the ethics of Sherif’s work, especially the 1954 Robbers Cave experiment. There, at an Oklahoma state park, about two dozen boys were assembled “in an alien environment, surrounded by adults whose behavior puzzled and sometimes troubled them.” As one researcher admitted to the author, the staff overtly “engineered events and set up misinformation so that one group would get angry with the other and retaliate.” Perry interviewed several men who had been at the camp as children to discover how they had been affected, and she traveled to Turkey to investigate Sherif’s youth for insight into his obsession with proving that brutality was not inherent in human nature but instead a product of social interaction. In grounding Sherif’s work in historical and biographical context, the author offers insight into how an experimenter shapes findings and raises salient questions about the ethical implications of psychological research.
A cleareyed assessment of a significant chapter in the history of psychology and social science.