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.

The Robbers Cave Experiment
The Robbers Cave experiment comprised three phases. Phase I, which followed an initial settling-in period, constituted the induction. Having spent a short time supposedly alone on camp, two randomly pre-selected groups of boys, the ‘Eagles' and the ‘Rattlers', were each then informed of the attendance of the ‘other group'. Suitably primed as to the other's presence, Phase II then entailed the convocation of the two groups within a simple competitive context: a tug-of-war. The final phase, Phase III, reversed the polarities, and called for the subsequent participation of the two factions in a cooperative task, the successful resolution of which would prove of mutual benefit: recovering the camp truck from a ditch, where it had purportedly gotten stuck while the boys were otherwise engaged.

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!

There was, needless to say, a method in the madness. To what extent, Sherif wanted to know, would the bonds that had formed initially between individuals survive the subsequent shift in mood between the groups? To what extent, in other words, in organic, unstable, divisional, social milieux, was interpersonal friendship dependent on intergroup equanimity?

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.

The big question, of course, was whether Sherif could pick up the pieces. Having inveigled, with relative ease, the initial schism between the two groups, did he now have the technology, the psychological know-how, to put things back together? So far everything had gone according to plan. But what of the ‘cooperation hypothesis'? At the outset, the introduction of a cooperative task, one on which both groups are motivated to work for mutual gain, had been mooted as a prophylactic. As harbouring the potential to reduce animosity once hostilities had been engaged. But could it, when push came to shove, really deliver the goods?
Fortunately for Sherif, and for everyone else involved in the study, it turned out it could. In line with prediction, the researchers found that the introduction of an over-arching, super-ordinate goal (pulling the beleaguered camp truck out of a ditch - which, incidentally, conscripted the very same rope that had previously, in the tug-of-war, been the cause of all the trouble) indeed lived up to its billing. The mindset of negative independence (‘what is good for them is bad for us and what is good for us is bad for them') was, at a stroke, supplanted by that of positive dependence (‘what is good for them is good for us and what is bad for them is bad for us.')

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.

Marriage Guidance
I have a friend who used to work in the Domestic Violence Unit of the Metropolitan Police, in London. Though he's not a psychologist, and had never heard of Muzafer Sherif and the Robbers Cave study, he was certainly aware of what Sherif was driving at. Many were the times when he'd turn up at an incident only to have both parties relinquish their grievances against each other and round on him. The ‘problem', he explained, was one of self-efficacy. Or rather, lack of it. In many deprived neighbourhoods, feelings of disempowerment are endemic. And so, when someone with stripes on their arm pitches up on your doorstep to ‘see what's going on', the tendency, more often than not, is to close ranks. To keep things, quite literally, ‘in house.' The uniformed interloper becomes the common enemy.

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.