Sherif’s background

Sherif's photograph
A photograph of Sherif

Born in the Ottoman Empire on July 29, 1906, Muzafer Sherif is a Turkish-American known famously for his psychology experiments concerning groups, especially how they work with and against each other. Having two master degrees, one in the University of Istanbul and the other in Harvard, in addition to winning an award for Contributions to Social Psychology from the American Sociological Association, he is certainly a clever man who discovered many things, including the realistic conflict theory and the social judgment theory. Overall Sherif was a productive man who managed to find a lot about teams’ positive and negative effects on their members as well as other teams. He wrote 24 books, 60 articles, with a bit of researching help from his wife. He lived to age 82, and according to his daughter he was in good spirits when he had a heart attack. This web page will go into detail about Sherif and his important experiments, telling all about their setups and results.

Conformity Experiment

Psychologists had previously discovered that a small, still light in a dark room often appeared to be moving, which they called the “autokinetic” effect– a mere illusion. In 1936, Sherif put subjects in a dark room this effect influencing his subjects, and asked them to examine the light and determine how much it has “moved”. Sherif studied how subjects reacted when they were alone, finding an “establishment” of own individual norms—usually 2 to 6 inches–which became quite consistent.

But when Sherif put groups of subjects in the dark room, 2 or 3 at a time, and asked to agree on a judgment, they were swayed from their original judgment. People who made bigger judgments (6 inches) made smaller judgments, and others who usually made small judgments (2 inches) increased their judgments. Regardless, all tried to reach 4 inches in order to be the same as the rest of the group.

Even so, nobody realized they were conforming to the rest of the group. When Sherif asked subjects directly if they were influenced by the other people in the group, most denied it. But when they have tested individually again, most now conformed to the group judgment they recently made–4 inches. These subjects had clearly conformed to group norms.

Overall, it seems that group conformity works by the fact that individuals tend to discuss and come to a compromise between their extreme opinions. It can be said that people tend to agree on one thing when they are in groups, even if they could be wrong. And this has shown to be correct in other cases too, even when the other people in the group are actors–in Asch’s Conformity Experiment,people couldn’t help but agree with the majority, even if it was clearly wrong.

The Conclusions of Sherif’s experiment

Competition Experiment

The twenty-two twelve-year-old boys in the study were unknown to each other and all from white middle-class backgrounds. The boys were randomly assigned to one of two groups, ignorant of the existence of the other group. They were separated and bonded as separate groups through common goals that required cooperative discussion, planning, and execution. Together, they hiked, swam, and did many other physical activities, and eventually they developed an attachment to their groups, even establishing their own cultures and group norms. “The Eagles” and “The Rattlers” were the two group names that resulted and were also sewn onto their shirts and made into flags.
The Competition Stage was next, where a series of competitive activities, including baseball, tug-of-war, and others, were arranged with a trophy being awarded on a resulting team score. Individual prizes were given for the winning group, while no consolation prizes were given to the “losers.”


The Rattlers’ were very confident and ended up putting their Rattler flag on the pitch. Furthermore, several Rattlers made threatening remarks to prevent The Eagles from bothering their flag. There would also be situations in which one group gained in favor of the others’ lost. For example, at a picnic, one group would eat the others’ food before they could arrive there. These prejudices which were initially verbal turned into physical harm. The Eagles ended up burning the Rattler’s flag. The next day, the Rattler’s infiltrated The Eagle’s cabin, overturned beds, and stole private property. The groups attacked each other so much that the researchers had to physically separate them.

In the two-day “cool off” period afterwards, the boys listed features of the two groups, heavily favoring their own group while disliking the other group. Even though these boys were not lower class at all, they still fought viciously against the other group. This experiment confirmed Sherif’s realistic conflict theory.

But of course, the experiment had a few flaws. For example, the two groups of boys did not necessarily reflect real life, because rival inner city gangs, or rival football supporters are far more organized and have completely different motives. In addition, the research excluded much of the rest of the population, especially girls and adults, resulting in a biased sample.

The last flaw is the fact that Sherif deceived these boys by not telling them it was an experiment. Even so, he arguably repaired the damage. He assigned a few final tasks, except this time both teams had to work together in order to complete them. In the end, the teams got along better due to their cooperation, and we see both sides of the experiment–when two groups compete, they grow aggressive and hostile toward each other, but when they work together, they get along better and become more friendly. In an extension, a researcher named John Duckitt did the same experiment except with unequal groups–and the results were stable oppression and unstable oppression–the latter which the weaker group would try to rise up and take over the dominant group; exemplified by the American Civil War.