All My People Love Me: The Dangerous Mind Games of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi
A classic experiment shows how dictators stay strong.
Posted Mar 25, 2011
Dictators like Gaddafi know how to manipulate a nation through Us-versus-Them ideology. The trouble, says Gaddafi, is all the work of outsiders. Drugs cartels and Al-Qaeda infiltrators. The people of Libya must unite against the infidels. In the east, in Benghazi. And in the west, in the skies over Tripoli. He, Gaddafi, will fight among the people. And together, inshallah, they will rise again, triumphant. Resisting the oil-plundering capitalists. Repelling the dope-dealing militants.
It's a classic move, really. And a classic experiment shows just how well it works.
Over an eight year period from the mid 1950's through to the early 1960's, Muzafer Sherif - yes, he of the autokinetic effect that I wrote about in my previous blogpost - carried out a devastating triad of experiments against the pubescent, testosterone-laden backdrop of the all-American ‘summer camp' system. The aim of these experiments (the culmination of which, in 1954, is known as the Robbers Cave study*,) was to demonstrate how observable differences in in-group behaviour could be wrought as a function of fluctuating inter-group relations. Or, to put it another way, how the attitude of one group towards another is contingent on the dynamic between them. Some half a century on, what happened at Robbers Cave is now regarded as a classic of social psychology. And one of the first empirical forays into the inchoate discipline of conflict resolution. In that brilliantine, rock n' roll summer, a new field of study was born.
During each of these three phases, the reactions of both contingents were kept under close scrutiny by a team of undercover researchers masquerading as camp orderlies.
How, Sherif wanted to know, over time, would relations between the two groups change?
The results proved a real eye-opener. At the conclusion of Phase I (the induction phase) the groups co-existed in a state of relative harmony: under what the researchers described as conditions of independence. During this phase there was little indication of any overt propensity towards in-group favouritism, although the occasional ‘remark', directed towards the out-group, had (as the researchers' notebooks attested to at the time) certainly been in evidence. At the conclusion of Phase II, however, and the tug-of-war, it was a completely different story. Tolerance and reason had gone out the window entirely, and the relationship between the two groups had devolved from a state of previously observed neutral independence into an overtly hostile one: what Sherif and his team now referred to as negative interdependence.
As a case in point there was the dramatic transformation in interpersonal relations between the boys. At this stage of the proceedings, each participant was asked by the researchers to nominate, not just from the members of their own group but from those of the other group, too, the person they considered to be their best friend on camp. On the surface, this seemed a simple enough question. Which it was, of course. But crucially, there was a catch. The boys, it turned out, had been asked precisely the same thing prior to the commencement of the study. Only then to discover, once the ball had started rolling, a curiously lopsided dynamic: the devious machinations of the researchers had contrived that all nominees in fact ended up in the out-group!
The answer, it emerged, was huge. Without exception, once that tug of war had taken place, every single participant had changed their tune. Best friends, it turned out, no longer languished in out-groups, as Sherif and his team had engineered at the outset. They were now found in the in-group. Exactly as Sherif had predicted, the introduction of inter-group competition had succeeded in promoting a rift: minimizing, on the one hand, differences between members of the in-group, while maximizing, on the other, those between members of opposing groups.
From that moment on, everything changed. Overt conflict now characterized the relationship between the two groups, and unsolicited attacks by one group on the other were commonplace.
The Eagles and the Rattlers were at war.
And everything came full circle.
At the conclusion of Phase III, relations between the Eagles and the Rattlers had normalised once again. So much so that once the camp truck was ostensibly back in action, both groups insisted that they share it back to base.
As I sit in front of the internet watching events unfold in Libya, I am mindful of this, and the lessons of Robbers Cave. No one can deny that Benghazi was a problem. That another Srebrenica could never have been allowed to happen. But turning up in uniform on another country's doorstep can sometimes lead to a bucket of cold water being tipped over you from an upstairs window. It can sometimes raise more problems than it solves. A nation divided can quickly pull together. Not literally, of course, as happened at Robbers Cave, with the Eagles and the Rattlers and the broken down truck. But spiritually. Psychologically. Ideologically.
Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is a renowned military history buff. Dollar to a dime he, like my friend, has never heard of Sherif and his ‘summer camp' studies.
But he's most certainly heard of Iraq. And he's beginning to turn the screw.
"I do not fear storms that sweep the horizon, nor do I fear the planes that throw black destruction. I am resistant, my house is here in my tent... I am the rightful owner, and the creator of tomorrow. I am here. I am here. I am here."
He is for now. And has been for 42 years. All his people love him. Who knows how long the Lion of Libya will roar?
* The study took place in the Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma.