'Behind the mask of science is the art of narrative'

Australian writer and psychologist Gina Perry on the writing of her book 'The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif's Robbers Cave experiments'. How does it feel to find yourself effectively debriefing people on an experiment they took part in 60 years ago?

On a high shelf in a vast back room at the Centre for the History of Psychology at the University of Akron is a wooden trunk. A label dangles from it addressed to Muzafer Sherif, 728 Chatacqua Street, Oklahoma. The wood looks battered, and it’s likely the same trunk that Sherif first brought with him from Turkey, containing a few changes of clothes, some photographs, and his precious psychology books. Later, he used it to store different mementoes, and the props and paperwork for his most famous experiment. Sherif ’s science is like that trunk – its beginnings far from rural Oklahoma, tangled up in the life of Muzafer Sherif, the dissolution of an empire, and the traumatic birth of a new nation.

In writing The Lost Boys I wanted to recreate the Robbers Cave experiment, to explain where it came from, how it started, and why when it ended, Muzafer Sherif seemed to fade away. It’s been a slow and often frustrating research process. While I have had access to detailed scientific records describing how the boys were recruited, and daily descriptions of particular behaviour Sherif and his team were looking for, the men’s observer notes often make for dull reading. The flesh and blood of this story – the lived experience of the boys themselves – appears only in brief flashes.

When Dr David Baker at the Archives of the History of American Psychology at Akron first told me excitedly that the ‘gem’ of their collection was the newly acquired material from the Robbers Cave experiment, I told myself the trail was too cold. I was in the middle of researching a book about Stanley Milgram’s research, and I didn’t have the time or the energy to pursue another major project.

David also told me how one of Sherif ’s assistants at the Robbers Cave, OJ Harvey, had recently visited the archives to help with the cataloguing of the collection and how he was keen to tell his story. And because David and his staff have been so good to me over the years, I felt bad turning such an opportunity down. I travelled to Boulder in May 2010 with my recording equipment and spent three days interviewing OJ Harvey. By the time I left, I was hooked.

The French philosopher and sociologist of science Bruno Latour refers to the ‘Janus face’ of science. On one side you have the public view, the face that scientists and researchers want us to see, the official frontstage presentation of facts by objective technologists-in-white-coats. It’s the PR face. Then you have the other face, the view backstage. It is messier, sometimes ugly, but always more interesting. From here you can see how and why science – and in this case, social psychological science – is made. It’s a world of human beings, not impersonal experts in lab coats, but an array of individual characters with personal histories and emotions that rarely make their way into public view.

In public accounts of the experiment, the individual boys who took part in Sherif ’s research get lost in discussions of Sherif ’s theory of group conflict and applications of the research. They cease to be children and become stand-ins for countries, ethnicities, ideologies, humankind. But they were individual boys who brought their own backgrounds and expectations, family histories and hopes, to that camp in the summer of 1954.

It never occurred to me that the children in Sherif ’s research hadn’t been told later that they were being studied, and I would be unexpectedly in the situation of having to explain the experiment to them and tell them something about the man behind it. It must have been strange enough for them to receive an email from me out of the blue, but it was weirder still to have someone tell you that sixty years ago you were experimented on. It raised more questions for the boys than I had answers for and I felt guilty, grubby for having inadvertently started a process where they began to re-examine their lives in view of this new information. I felt compelled to find answers to their questions as a form of de-briefing for an experiment they had been involved in over sixty years earlier. 

The boys in Sherif ’s camp experiments are lost in many ways. While there are hundreds of pages of observations about them in the archives, the commentary is often about the group as a whole, rather than individuals, or about leaders rather than followers. When a single boy is mentioned, his name has been redacted. When Sherif or one of this assistants, describe a disagreement between boys, they don’t often include information about what prompted it or how the fight developed. I didn’t want to write a book in which the boys were an undifferentiated group of faceless individuals with a hive mind.

From the start of my research, when I somewhat reluctantly walked into OJ Harvey’s home in Boulder, Colorado, in May 2010, to the time I finished in December 2017, I knitted together the delicate tatters of the narrative from the accounts of research staff, letters and diaries, the recollections of some adult boys, and the observations of people who knew Sherif or are deeply familiar with his work. But it was not an easy or straightforward process. Although Sherif wrote prodigiously, it is no exaggeration to say that social psychology was his life. He is an elusive character, and while his personality is alive in his letters and writings, it’s rare for him to mention his thoughts and feelings.

I knew so little about Turkey – how did I know so little about Turkey? – that when I started to read about its history it was like trying to put the pieces of a jigsaw together without a picture on the lid of the box. I read indiscriminately, following first one strand, then another. I got lost in the Lausanne Treaty, the cult of Atatürk, the life of Ottoman sultans, a whole book on the outlawing of the fez. I read the diaries of American missionaries and diplomats, peppered with dismissive and often supercilious analyses of the shortcomings of the Turkish people. I read memoirs written by Levant ladies yearning for the lost days of Smyrna, their servants, and leisure and wealth, written from their exile in grimy brick flats in London.

I interviewed former students of Sherif ’s and the men he worked with, consulted the archives at a range of universities and foundations. And of course I went over and over Sherif ’s own records, the thousands of items related to the camp experiments. But I got despondent. I reminded myself that research was a haphazard and circuitous process and you never knew where you’d end up. But I also knew that truckloads of facts don’t tell a story.

The challenge in writing the book has been how to fill the gaps in the narrative while staying true to the facts. This was a particular challenge in writing about the camp experiments. I have used Sherif ’s audio recordings and photographs as a framework and anchor points for the events described, as well as the notes of the participant observers, whose job it was to record their observations of the boys in each group.The observers’ notes have largely been redacted, although the observers paid more attention to what they called ‘high status’ boys in each group, and noting the interactions between leaders and ‘lieutenants’, so I have been able at times to infer which boysthe observers are referring to. In other places it is impossible to tell which specific boys are being described.

In forming a narrative thread to connect events in some places, I have recreated events through a combination of the official record and interview material. In places I have added dialogue or gestures, or speculated on the thoughts and feelings of the people involved, or provided elements of a boy’s backstory to enable the reader to follow the story of individual boys in the experiment. When I have added dialogue or the thoughts and feelings of boys, I have tried as much as possible to base this closely on interviews and archival material, as well as conversations with the now adult boys. At other times I have inferred the boys’ emotions from observations or written comments from the adults.

Then there is the question of memory. I was able to track down and talk to some of the boys, but often their recall of events was minimal, hazy, or incomplete. In 1954, these men were bright, often boisterous, and sharp-eyed children. But sixty years on, recalling their childhood selves and pinpointing their specific thoughts and feelings at the time often proved impossible. Complicating this was the fact that they were often grappling with new information about the experiment that challenged their previously held points of view. Having said that, I found the adult boys’ recall of events proved surprisingly consistent with those provided through the official record.

As for the impact of the experiment and its effect on the now adult boys, I have no way of knowing whether they had rewritten the narrative over the years to reconcile themselves to the experience, or if their lack of recall was a defence against remembering unhappy events. After all, these now grown boys were sixty years ago faced with dilemmas in an experiment that was not of their choosing.

I make no claim to a representative sample. I spoke to those boys who I could find and who were willing to speak to me. Some asked me to use a different name and I have done this. All of those who participated did so because, like me, they were fascinated by the thought of this kind of experiment and of their role in history.

In trying to answer the questions I had, my research took me to Ödemiş and Istanbul; to Vienna; to upstate New York and rural Oklahoma – from contemporary Turkey to the Ottoman Empire, from the Turkish Republic and Mustafa Kemal and back again. I am not a historian, and I have begun with a superficial knowledge of Turkish history. While I have consulted experts in this field where possible, any errors of interpretation or fact are mine alone.

In writing about Sherif, I have abandoned the idea of him as the faceless scientist backstage and inserted him as central to the story of the experiment.         

The backstage view of social psychological research, I believe, helps us to understand not just how we come to accept such research as fact or the role of the experimenter’s own life in shaping it. It also goes some way towards answering the question of what is the cost to the subjects in psychological research? Can people experimented on as children ever emerge unscathed? Getting to know individuals who were subjects in Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments taught me that subjects in psychological research are not passive beings who unquestioningly accept a scientist’s instructions – those subjects are a social psychologist’s fantasy. My hunch was that the boys, now men, from Sherif ’s studies could offer insights into the experimenters and the research that the adults would have missed. But giving equal weight to the stories of the scientists and the subjects is more than an attempt to redress the power imbalance in accounts of Sherif ’s research. Social psychologists are storytellers who help explain human nature to us; but whether the tales they tell are sensational, alarming, or comforting confirmation of our deeply held beliefs, we should question their conclusions. Behind the mask of science is the art of the narrative, and accounts of social psychological research are driven as much by imaginative impulse and rhetoric as they are by logic and rationality. Using the lens of history to explore the narratives of the researchers and the researched can illuminate the gap between the ideal of science and the reality of its execution.

- Gina Perry is an Australian writer and psychologist. The Lost Boys is published by Scribe. Find out more about Muzafer Sherif and the Robbers Cave experiments in our archive.

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