How Gina Perry gave a voice to the “lost boys” of Robbers Cave

The 1954 study pitted two groups of white, middle-class American boys against each other in a remote summer camp in Oklahoma.

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Over a decade ago, the Australian psychologist and writer Gina Perry resolved to go in search of psychiatry’s lost boys. She had secured access to the archives of Muzafer Sherif, a Turkish-American psychologist behind the controversial 1954 Robbers Cave social experiment, better known as “the real-life Lord of the Flies”, in reference to William Golding’s novel published the same year.

The study pitted two groups of white, middle-class American 11-year-old boys against each other in a remote summer camp in Oklahoma’s Robbers Cave State Park – named after its use as a hideout by notorious US outlaws Belle Starr and Jesse James. Perry sought to find out how the boys – used for research into group conformity and conflict theory – had been affected by this dark chapter in their childhoods.

During the experiment, the 22 boys became so aggressive towards each other – ransacking cabins, burning flags and physically fighting – that the researchers were forced to intervene.

“It’s important that iconic experiments give the subjects involved a voice, because they’re so often portrayed as this faceless, anonymous group,” Perry told me when we recently met for tea in her own cave – a whitewashed wine cellar beneath the offices of the London publisher of her book, The Lost Boys.

“Psychological research in the first half of the 20th century did tend to use subjects who didn’t enjoy the same rights as other people,” she said. “People in institutions, children in orphanages, African-American men.”

Perry had recently arrived from her home town of Melbourne to promote the book, which tells the stories of more than ten subjects she tracked down. The boys did not know until 50 years later, when they received Perry’s call, that they had been experimented upon. Their parents had been spun a tale about a Yale-funded camp to promote leadership and democratic values.

After trawling through the archived notes and pictures taken by Sherif and his colleagues, Perry discovered that the maverick scientist had attempted – and terminated – a similar experiment the year before Robbers Cave.

What happened during this botched version in 1953 had until today been a mystery.

The first lost boy Perry found – a county judge called Doug Griset – was from this experiment: his clearest recollection of the summer camp was being offered a set of knives, and waking up in hospital. The knives were the sinister reward offered by the experimenters for a tournament designed to breed hostility between the two tribes of boys.

Competition was so fierce that Griset was knocked out cold by a baseball, hence the “hospital” he remembers waking up in – he was actually in the camp’s medical wing. His parents took him home shortly afterwards. Griset was intensely homesick and the experimenters didn’t want him to infect other boys with his dejection.

But the experiment eventually collapsed, as the boys united in hostility against the adults, who had split up friendships to try to encourage enmity, and instilled too much distress among their subjects for them to continue.

“I don’t like lakes, camps, cabins, or tents. My kids always said, ‘Why is it, Dad, that you never want to go camping?’” Griset told Perry when they spoke. He now specialises in family law – particularly the protection of children during family breakdown.

Another lost boy, Dwayne, told Perry how he was transformed shortly after the experiment from an awkward child into a fighter. “It’s always been a bit of a mystery to me: where did I get the idea – this mild little goofy kid – just a couple of years later that it was OK to solve problems with my fists?” Perry quotes him as asking.

At the height of the Cold War, and in the aftermath of the Second World War, it was fashionable to explore the psychology of group conformity. Before pursuing the lost boys, Perry interviewed subjects of the infamous Milgram shock tests, which began in 1961. In these experiments, people were tricked into believing they were subjecting their fellow volunteers to increasingly dangerous electric shocks.

Their tendency to follow orders was thought to illuminate the psyche of Nazi prison guards. “There are Milgram people who I met who describe the last 50 years of [being seen as] equivalent to Nazi concentration camp guards,” Perry said. “It was difficult for me to find a lot of them, because there was still so much shame.”

Yet unlike the British teacher William Golding, whose experiment involving two groups of his schoolboys fighting on Salisbury Plain in 1951 inspired Lord of the Flies, Sherif was determined to frame humans as inherently good, rather than evil.

Where Golding believed “man produces evil as a bee produces honey”, Sherif was adamant that competition could be healed by collective endeavour (he was suspected of communist sympathies by the authorities). As a child, he witnessed the effects of ethnic cleansing and Turkish nationalism during World War One: Christian Armenian boys and others disappeared from his school.

Yet for all his good intentions, the psychologist ironically didn’t take “psychological harm into the equation at all” when devising these studies, Perry said. “They [the boys] carry those experiments round with them for the rest of their lives.”

“The Lost Boys” by Gina Perry is published by Scribe

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

This article appears in the 29 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Germany, alone