By Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell

While each year thousands of studies are completed in psychology and education, there are a handful that over the years have had a lasting impact on education and learning.

In a series of Extra Credit articles, I will highlight several seminal studies in this field.   

The fifth article in this series explores the powerful dynamics of group belonging.



In William Golding’s iconic 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, a group of teenaged boys end up marooned on a deserted island. As the plot unfolds, rival factions evolve and civility devolves.

By the end of the novel, civil war has taken hold, and there’s little hope of resolution.

A prominent theme of the novel rests on the coercive power of a group, absent rational thought. In the name of their “tribe,” many of the boys commit heinous acts — acts that were beyond their imagination, prior to being marooned on the island. The novel was thought to be an allegory for a disturbing aspect of humanity, i.e., otherwise typical people, given circumstances, will quickly surrender to baser instincts.

But this never happens in real life, right?  

The Study – Robbers Cave

Perhaps influenced by Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the 1954 Robbers Cave study is a powerful demonstration of how easily group conflict develops. The study was conducted by Muzafer and Carolyn Sherif from the University of Oklahoma. For the study, 11- and 12-year-old boys from similar backgrounds were randomly assigned to two groups of 11 boys each. For one week, the two groups were housed in separate areas of the Robbers Cave summer camp facility and were given the opportunity to bond as social units. During that first week, each group had no idea there was another group.

Almost immediately upon contact, distinct signs of animosity arose between the groups. Despite a very short time together, the groups formed an “us” versus “them” mentality.

To assess the boundaries of this conflict-oriented group mentality, the researchers implemented a series of competitive activities between the groups. As a result, the animosity grew to the point of name-calling, near fist-fights, and refusal to eat lunch and supper in the same room. (It is worth mentioning that due to deception and lack of consent, this study would not be approved today by ethics review boards.)

With near hatred artificially induced, the researchers then wondered if they could undo what they had created. The researchers first had the campers participate in a series of non-competitive fun activities, such as setting off fireworks and watching movies together. This had little impact. Animosity was still rampant.

Next, the researchers created situations and activities that required boys from each of the groups to work closely together to accomplish a task. The scenarios created by the researchers, such as creating a “water shortage,” were challenging and required close collaboration for success. This seemed to have a positive impact on the hostile mindset. For the remainder of the camp experience, the barriers between the groups dissolved to the point of being unnoticeable.


Like most, if not all, human behavior, there’s a pretty good evolutionary explanation for these results. Over eons, survival has been baked into our genes. For thousands of years, human beings’ very survival depended on being ever-alert to potential harm. The “fittest” in this regard have passed along those genes, and as a result we have generally flourished. However, the remnants of this evolutionary heritage often lead to over-affiliation or over-belonging to your group versus other groups.

Implications for Education

As always, the education system can and should have a fundamental role in the social-emotional development of students. An important social-emotional objective of schools might be finding the balance between enjoying the benefits of belonging to a group and understanding the drawbacks of over-belonging to a group. For example, in the Robbers Cave study, you see how group belonging is both beneficial and detrimental. Schools can teach toward this balance in many ways.

Connecting with Others

Familiarity breeds understanding. Having a strong service learning program, for example, powerfully connects students to typically less-fortunate groups of people, building student empathy and understanding along the way. At all ages, our students work for and in the community to support causes beyond their own interests. Our very mission as a learning differences school also reinforces this concept of understanding and walking in another’s shoes. When an exceptional reader is in a very small homeroom class with a severely dyslexic student, or a socially savvy teen is asked to help support a fellow student who needs social skills cues, students develop compassion and understanding that may have eluded them in another setting.

My son is a senior at Centennial High School and they have beautifully integrated students with significant academic and social needs. I am on campus a lot due to my son’s participation in various sports, and it is clear that the presence of these non-traditional learners has a profound impact on many of the other students, including my son.

Finally, building local, national and global connections via exchange and travel opportunities opens the eyes of students in ways that are not possible by reading the textbook. Having led many international exchanges, I can relate first-hand to how such activities change perspectives. Eighteen Currey Ingram Upper School students and three faculty went to Spain over spring break, and the superlatives and ah-ha moments keep coming.

Working Toward Shared Goals

As clearly demonstrated from the Robbers Cave study, working collaboratively towards a goal is a potent method for group cohesion.

Schools that integrate opportunities for meaningful collaboration among students are fertile ground for group cohesiveness. Typically, a robust extracurricular program gets students involved with groups in a variety of ways. Ideally, every student is encouraged to join groups outside of their usual comfort zone. Also, academic approaches such as Problem-Based Learning (PBL) are specifically designed to require maximal functioning of a group to solve a very challenging problem. An example at Currey Ingram might be our Upper School product design class. This group is working to solve a very practical problem for the school and to produce a prototype via 3D modeling and printing. This involves both difficult academic work but also collaboration.


In keeping with the outcome of the Robbers Cave study, perhaps the creators of the first Independence Day movie had it right. I say only half in jest, that the one thing that would coalesce all the groups of our planet together is an invasion by aliens. If this were to happen, it would be abundantly clear how we, as people, belong to the same group. Let’s hope this thought exercise is not tested. So, for now, let’s just chip away at evolution with an ever-increasing knowledge of the importance of simultaneously belonging to no groups and many groups.

Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell is head of school at Currey Ingram Academy.