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One of the most famous experiments in social psychology took place in Robbers Cave state park, Oklahoma, in the early 1950s.

It split a group of boys into two groups and showed how these random groups became hostile to each other.

It’s often mentioned as an example of how easy it is to create conflict. But people forget that in the original experiment, the boys learned to work together.

At the moment, it feels like society is very divided. Politics is driving us apart. But we can still find common ground. To do that, we need to come together and talk.

Not just every 5 years for an election, but regularly. We call it ‘everyday deliberation’ and the RSA is working with Engage Britain to make it happen.  

What was the Robbers Cave experiment? Why doesn’t it show conflict is inevitable?

In the ‘Robbers Cave experiment’, a summer camp for boys was set up by a team of psychologists (led by Muzafer Sherif). The boys were split into two groups – named the Eagles and the Rattlers – and invited to participate in activities that were deliberately designed to create hostility.

Following a Tug of War won by the Rattlers, flags were burned, cabins were raided, and boys from both sides engaged in vandalism and food fights.

Much has been written about this study since, including some of the dubious methods employed by the researchers. Very often the focus is on how easy it is to engineer enmity.

But this would be to misunderstand the study's full sweep.

At the end of their period of hostility, the water supply was deliberately cut off by the researchers. It became apparent to both the Eagles and the Rattlers that they could only overcome the set-back by working together and collaborating.

So, the real story is how tribal barriers can be broken down under the right contexts. And the importance of the contextual environment in influencing how we engage with each other. 

The country is divided. But there’s more that unites us than it seems.

The Robbers Cave study took place in the 1950s. But its conclusions resonate with us today.

Brexit is said to have divided the country.

Like in the experiment, some people on either side of the divide dislike the opposing side intensely. And we’re all capable of interpreting the same information in radically different ways depending on which side of the divide they stand.

But the latest research also shows that there are many more issues that unite people across the divide. We find widespread similar concerns like the funding of health and social care or tackling poverty, and growing consensus on a range of social issues like same-sex marriage. 

So we can also say today is like the lesser-known happy ending of the experiment.

That bringing people together to discuss and deliberate on important issues helps them to empathise with individuals from different backgrounds. That empathy helps people form views that prevent needless division.

And this is why the RSA is partnering with a new organisation called Engage Britain to promote the concept of ‘Everyday Deliberation’.

Everyday Deliberation – let’s use technology to talk to each other

Everyday Deliberation is the idea of bringing people to together on a regular, even daily, basis to discuss important issues.

Why? We think doing this regularly might help to change political culture – make it more about deliberation and not division.

How? New developments in technology, which allow us to take deliberative democracy to the next level.

Interest in deliberative democracy is growing. It can be really useful in tackling complex policy problems. One of the best-known forms of deliberative democracy is the Citizens’ Assembly - a randomly selected group, chosen to reflect the wider population, which meets to talk about a problem or policy idea and makes recommendations.

Citizens’ Assemblies hold huge promise. But we now also have the online platforms to include a larger number of people in the conversation, on a bigger number of topics. We think this can have a real impact.

To try and make this happen, the RSA is partnering with Engage Britain. They are a new organisation whose mission is to bring people together to tackle the UK’s most complex policy challenges.

The RSA and Engage Britain will be exploring how these new approaches might enable us to use these online deliberative methods to support the development of Everyday Deliberation. We hope you’ll join the conversation.


If you’re interested in exploring these ideas with us, please get in touch at PublicServices@rsa.org.uk 

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