National Geographic : 2018 Apr
54 national geographic • april 2018 they like the sound of the language they heard in the womb and early in life much better than an alien tongue. These preferences continue. In adulthood most of us are better at recognizing the faces and reading the emotions of people who look and act like us. Psychologists have long established how remarkably easy it is to awaken our tribal minds. In a classic experiment conducted in 1954, for example, researchers from the University of Okla- homa made and unmade two warring tribes out of 22 local boys. All were sixth graders, came from similar neighborhoods, and were white. Divided into two groups and bused separately to Robbers Cave State Park, the kids were turned loose with just a few guidelines from the experimenters. Each group soon set itself up with a bunkhouse and a swimming hole, gave itself a name, and established norms (one, the Rattlers, cursed a blue streak, while their rivals, the Eagles, prided themselves on clean language). Then, a week in, each tribe discovered the other. Within days they were at war—raiding each other ’s bunkhouses and eating only with mem- bers of their own group. Baseball games and other competitions turned into exchanges of insults. Angry talk about “those n***** campers” and “communists” and “sissies” escalated. Then, in the third week of the camp, the experimenters faked some challenges (pulling a disabled truck, unpacking food delivered in crates) that forced the Rattlers and Eagles to work together. The ex- perience of cooperating toward a common goal united them. By the end of the three-week camp, the boys were singing “The Star-Spangled Ban- ner” together and letting bygones be bygones. As the Robbers Cave experiment illustrated, human beings can shift their group perceptions in both directions. Sometimes we turn Us into Them. But we can also turn Them into Us.