Gina Perry’s The Lost Boys is a fascinating book about psychologist Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave Experiment. The social experiment took place in 1954, the same year as the publication of Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and indeed, Perry mentions the novel several times in the course of the book. Sherif’s experiment has been described as a ‘real-life Lord of the Flies,’ as he was particularly interested in what would happen if pre-teen boys were divided into two groups, and ‘encouraged’ to battle against each other. Perry writes that ‘in his novel, Golding projected his view of the “true” nature of savagery onto children’ (18). Sherif, however, though that ‘people were inherently good, and it was an environment […] that fostered inequality between social groups’ (19).
The Robbers Cave experiment, however, was not Sherif’s first attempt at conducting such research. Perry notes that Sherif had referred to a 1949 study in a number of his published works, but was surprised to find very little mention of a 1953 one, which had been aborted. She takes the reader on a journey through this study and reconstructs the events through archival materials and interviews with some of the subjects and staff.
The 1953 Middle Grove study took place in New York state and Sherif deliberately chose boys who were ‘homogenous – their individuality swallowed up in generic categories of age, religion, hobbies, and family background’ (31). The main difference in this experiment to his final Robbers Cave one was allowing the full group of 24 boys to become friends first of all. The researchers then split the group, deliberating separating close and burgeoning friendships. This caused the boys to become hostile to the adults, rather than towards each other, and the hoped-for ‘antagonism between the groups failed to materialise’ (128). The camp counsellors (who were researchers in disguise) attempted to manipulate the boys to increase hostility but Sherif soon declared the experiment to be over, and a failure.
This failure prompted a more proactive approach by the researchers in the Robbers Cave camp. As Perry writes, ‘the adults had more leeway to shape the group’s behaviour with the experiment’s hypotheses and to move things along’. But this of course skews the results to suit a particular narrative, and the description of the events are unsettling. The two groups are this time kept separate from the very start, and spend the first days in camp without knowing of the other’s existence. Once introduced, the adults instigated a four-day tournament, with the winning team to receive a number of prizes, including knives. The losing team would receive nothing. As the published results of the experiment show, this competition did lead to some terrifying fights, including a night assault, detailed in Perry’s prologue. But Perry wonders how much of this antagonism was natural behaviour, and questions whether it was the intervention of the adult researchers which caused the boys to act this way. She concludes
‘It seemed to me that what happened at Robbers Cave wasn’t a test of a theory so much as a choreographed enactment, with the boys as the unwitting actors in someone else’s script.’
So what of Lord of the Flies then? Does Perry’s belief that the boys in Sherif’s experiment were manipulated to turn them into savages make the events of Golding’s novel less likely? I don’t think so. Lord of the Flies has one crucial difference to these experiments – there are no adults at all. Indeed, this is at first celebrated by the boys:
“Aren’t there any grownups at all?”
“I don’t think so.”
The fair boy said this solemnly; but then the delight of a realised ambition overcame him. In the middle of the scar he stood on his head and grinned at the fat boy.
Perry’s interviews with some of the boys who attended Sherif’s camps are often marked by their shock that the adults who were supervising them did nothing to help when things began to go wrong. It seemed that the experiments revealed just as much about the behaviour of adults, and how far they are willing to go to prove something to be correct, or to make things the way they want them, regardless of the cost. This recalls the ending of Lord of the Flies and the Naval Officer’s jovial question, ‘Having a war or something?’. His disappointment that they hadn’t ‘put up a better show’ of their time on the island is exposed as hypocrisy in the final line as he allows ‘his eyes to rest on the trim cruiser in the distance’. The boys had been fighting a war, doing ‘just what adults do’.
The Lost Boys is a meticulously-researched and engaging book and a particular highlight is the interviews with the now grown-up boys, reflecting on their experiences. Wouldn’t it be interesting to ask Ralph about his time on the island, 65 years later?