Good Reading : April 2018
GOODREADINGMAGAZINE.COM.AU GOOD READING APRIL 2018 44 In 1951, a British schoolteacher took a turn off the road that leads to Stonehenge and brought a group of male students to a less famous feature of the region: the remains of an Iron Age fort called Figsbury Ring. Once there, he split the boys into two groups. He challenged one group to defend the decayed fort; the other group would attack. The boys took up the task with a ferocity that shocked him – and the more distance the observing teacher put between himself and the schoolboy battle, the more savage the violence became. The man was William Golding, and in the same year he published the resulting Nobel prize-winning novel, The Lord of the Flies, a social scientist named Muzafer Sherif bussed a group of 11-year-old boys into the Oklahoman woods to a camp named Robbers Cave. There he conducted a similar experiment to Golding’s, albeit his investigation into warring boys was on a much larger scale. ‘I hadn’t heard anything about this experiment in my training,’ says psychologist and science-wr iter Gina Perry. ‘What did grab me about it was the name, Robber’s Cave – I thought, oh my goodness, that sounds like a fairy story!’ Gina came across Sherif ’s work in the fourth year of a robust research project into Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments about obedience and authority in 1961. Milgram found that when volunteers were asked to electrify test subjects at increasing voltages, two thirds of the volunteers continued to shock the test subject to the point of death; although no one actually died, as the test subjects were actually actors faking shrieks of pain. The Milgram experiment shed light on how ordinary people can become merciless killers dur ing times of war. But it also raised serious ethical questions. For her book on Milgram, Beyond the Shock Machine, Gina spoke to some of Milgram’s volunteers still traumatised from the experience. When she came across Sherif ’s work, his dubious approach to experimental social psychology seemed all too familiar. ‘In the wake of World War II people were feeling that there was this race to understand what had happened during the Holocaust in Ger many, and how we could come to understand conflicts that had occurred around the world,’ says Gina. ‘Psychologists were experimenting on human subjects without worrying about ethical implications. It was as if they were two-legged rats rather than people.’ THE FORGOTTEN EXPERIMENT UP CLOSE 4 In her new book, The Lost Boys, psychologist GINA PERRY uncovers a forgotten social experiment conducted at an Oklahoman summer camp during the 1950s. ANGUS DALTON reports. test subject to the point of Gina Perry They had named themselves The Rattlers after rattlesnakes they’d spotted on a hike ...