As we approach another mid-season premiere of AMC’s zombie apocalypse series, I recall a psychology experiment from 60 years ago that applies.

Social psychologist Muzafer Sherif designed a research project in 1954 to test groups that were competing for limited resources. It’s called the “Robber's Cave" because it was set in Robber’s Cave State Park in Oklahoma.

The notions he sought to test involved hierarchies and roles that form when strangers are thrown together for a series of tasks — especially during competition.

[WD fans: like Rick's prison group vs. Woodbury.]

Sherif’s team of researchers assigned twenty-two healthy, white, middle-class 11- and 12-year-old boys into two groups, keeping the groups relatively balanced for skill and strength. No boy had known any other before this study, and neither group initially knew about the other. Each group was taken by bus separately to cabins in different areas of a Boy Scout camp. Researchers served as camp counselors so they could blend in and make observations.

[WD fans: like Rick’s group before they discovered Woodbury.]

During the first week, the boys were encouraged, intra-group, to bond through the pursuit of goals that would benefit the group. They also participated in fun activities together, like swimming. They learned quickly to cooperate.

[WD: We see this in both the prison and Woodbury.]

Each group spontaneously chose a name. One was the Eagles, the other the Rattlers. This became a badge of identity.

[WD: Like Rick’s group calling the zombies Walkers, and Woodbury residents calling them Biters.]

Gradually, the groups became aware of each other. As if sensing the future need to protect its turf, each began to hone its intra-group abilities, as members helped one another to improve.

[WD: Like teaching non-shooters how to shoot or showing novices where to deliver a fatal blow to a zombie.]

Each group asked the staff to arrange a competition, as if wanting to be tested.

[WD: This sounds a lot like the Governor, but not much like Rick.]

The following week (Stage 2), Sherif’s team arranged a series of games between the Eagles and Rattlers. The winning group got prizes, while the losers got nothing. Situations were also contrived, such as having food available, in which one group could gain at the other group’s expense.

[WD: The Governor and his ilk were takers, not cooperators.]

As the competitions progressed, group identity became more cohesive and animosity toward the other group increased. Each staked out its turf and threatened the other. They started name-calling, which escalated to property damage and theft. Reportedly, each group became so aggressive against the “enemy” that they had to be forcibly separated.

[WD: There are no camp counselors, but cooler heads in Ricks’ group realized the need to stay apart.]

The next part of Sherif’s design involved asking the boys, now separated, to describe both groups. Unsurprisingly, they favored the one with which they identified and they vilified the other.

[There’s plenty of this on WD.]

The researchers then tried to integrate the groups [a Hershel-type approach]. They set up friendly activities for the separate groups to get acquainted and encouraged them to work together. However, these activities had little impact on the inter-group animosity [as Hershel discovered the hard way before he could even try them]. 

Only when “superordinate” goals were presented, such as fixing a failed water supply that forced mutual cooperation, did animosity decrease. By the time the bus left the camp at the experiment's conclusion, the groups were riding on it together, with self-selected seating arrangements that did not follow group lines. The Rattlers even used their prize money to buy a treat for the Eagles.


So, on WD, Rick’s band was doomed to fail at high-minded reconciliation talks. Instead, they needed a superordinate goal, such as having to fight together against a zombie hoard or a third marauding group. The Robber’s Cave experiment could have shown them before they even tried that appealing to the Governor’s better nature was not going to work.

The lesson: To prepare for a zombie apocalypse, take a basic social psych course.  

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