The Double Edged Passion

Is There No Hope?

Sherif's attempts to rile prejudice worked better than he had imagined they would, but so too did the last phase in his camp experiment, which I haven't told you about yet.

He rigged a number of events in which the Eagles and Rattlers were obliged to work together to achieve larger goals. For example, he blocked up the entire camp's water supply with an artfully placed sack, blaming the problem on "vandals." The two groups investigated, and converged on the “broken” faucet, which they then struggled together to fix. Final success brought universal celebration. In another event, Sherif sabotaged their bus, and the boys had to use their tug of war rope to start it again - everyone pulling, for once, in the same direction on it.
Food fights in the cafeteria stopped, tauntings dropped right off, and on the last day of camp they overwhelmingly voted to go home on the same bus together. At a stop on the way home, the Rattlers even volunteered to use one of their $5 prizes up buying a round of malted milks for everyone.

Prejudices, it seems, are more malleable than the people holding them tend to think. The end of World War II saw Germany and Japan switch rapidly in the Allies psyche from terrible enemies, complete with derogatory nicknames, to stalwart friends, demonstrating that even those prejudices that had been chiselled, literally, into granite, aren’t. Ever since Sherif's experiment, psychologists have wondered about the best way to help such thaws along. Recently psychologists Thomas Pettigrew and Linda Trop (2006) gathered the results from hundreds of studies on this question (covering thousands of people), and used complex "meta analysis" statistics to take a powerful new look at the collected results.

What they found is strong support for the ‘contact hypothesis’ - that personal contact between group members helps improve feelings. Contact even works substantially better when a number of conditions are present. From what you've heard so far, you won't be surprised to know that it helps to have a shared goal to work towards (like getting your bus unstuck), and that it is good to have a shared outgroup to rally against ("stupid vandals"). Other things help too, though, such as having the contact occur on an equal footing, with no group having higher status than the other.


Our conviction over the years that TBOT are jerks has been matched in its consistency only by our inability to keep straight exactly who TBOT are. Three hundred years ago the French were popular in America as allies in the American Revolution; one hundred years ago Italians were looked down on as unwelcome American immigrants. Of late, Italians are considered non-specifically White, whereas the French have been castigated with outbursts of "freedom fry" munching spite by Americans who were upset that they weren’t doing their part to fight an even newer TBOT. If probed, many of these same Americans (of either period) will happily claim that they dislike the jerks they do, because, well, “everyone knows” that “that’s the way it’s always been.”

You may recall Muzafer Sherif ran his summer camp disguised as a janitor, but you may not have realized why. What Sherif knew was that boys will clam up instantly on sight of a grown up, but people will say almost anything when only the janitor is present. Janitors aren’t real people, you understand.

There is an old saying that you don't understand anyone until you have walked a mile in their shoes. Sherif wore the shoes, shirt, slacks, and even pushed the broom. Maybe if the rest of us spent more time wearing the shoes of those we tread underfoot, there would be less hate in the world. Maybe, but prejudice is a remarkably consistent human passion.



Altemeyer, R. (2006). The Authoritarians. Retrieved from

Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J., & Sanford, R. N. (1950). The Authoritarian Personality. Oxford, England: Harpers.

Crandall, C. S., Eshleman, A., & O'Brien, L. (2002). Social norms and the expression and suppression of prejudice: The struggle for internalization. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 82, 359-378.

Fein, S., & Spencer, S. J. (1997). Prejudice as self-image maintenance: Affirming the self through derogating others. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 73, 31-44.