Muzafer Sherif; a life of conflict and goals; for more than 50 years, his innovative research has helped shape the history of social psychology – includes 2 related articles on his research on autokinetic effect and intergroup hostility

Robert J. Trotter

The Turkish teenager stood transfixed as people all around him were being killed by invading Greek soldiers. When the man next to him was murdered, the boy knew it was his turn. The soldier withdrew his bayonet and prepared to kill again. But it didn’t happen; the soldier turned and walked away. “It’s a miracle I’m alive,” Muzafer Sherif says.

That was in May 1919, when the Greeks invaded Sherif’s home province of Izmir (Smyrna), Turkey. The incident shaped his life and gave birth to a brilliant career devoted to understanding intergroup conflict and cooperation and their causes.

“That’s the overriding problem that plagues the human race,” Sherif explained in a recent interview. “We have to reduce the enmity between the two giant rival blocs of nations, capitalist and socialist. They can destroy the world, make it uninhabitable, as those scientists with inside knowledge, like Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein, warned us nearly 40 years ago.”

Sherif’s single-minded commitment has yielded two of the most well-known and influential experiments in the field of social psychology, more than 16 books and numerous scientific articles. It also earned him a variety of fellowships and awards, including the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award in 1968 for “his dedication to objective, quantitative measures in numerous studies of interpersonal behavior.”

Sherif has witnessed more than his share of intense intergroup dissension. Born in Turkey in 1906, he grew up in an atmosphere of constant conflict among political and religious groups. Turks, Greeks and Armenians waged war; Muslims fought Christians; political factions and social classes quarreled incessantly. It’s not surprising that he decided to study psychology and concentrate on factors related to group conflict with the aim of ultimately hitting on the most effective way of bringing groups in conflict together.

After getting a bachelor of arts degree at Izmir International College and a master’s degree at the University of Istanbul, Sherif won a national competition for study abroad, which took him to Harvard University in 1929. He chose Harvard because that was the school where William James had taught.

The Roaring Twenties were in full swing, and Sherif says he thought he had come to a paradise on Earth. Two months later, the stock market crashed, and within a year Wall Street bankers were shooting themselves, people were jumping out of windows and hundreds were sleeping on newspapers in Boston Common. “I saw that there was something very wrong with this paradise,” Sherif says, “and decided that I would have to look at things with a more realistic eye.”

In spite of the opposition of his teachers at Harvard, he started going to political science and sociology classes. He read as much as he could about the political situation, went to New Deal meetings and strike meetings and studied how demagogues like Father Divine in New York City and Huey Long, of “Share the Wealth” fame, in Louisiana were taking advantage of the uncertain and deplorable conditions.

He studied the effects of joblessness on the perception of the unemployed, who, for example, no longer knew what day of the week it was because it didn’t matter.

Before returning to Turkey to teach at the Gaza Institute in Ankara, Sherif attended lectures at the University of Berlin during the time Hitler was coming to power. The situation was perfect for a man who “was terribly interested in human relations” and saw himself as a student of social movements. He saw the attitudes of an entire nation being manipulated by, among other things, slogans. This led Sherif to a study of the psychology of slogans and, by extension, to one of his most important research topics, the study of attitudes and the rise of social norms.

“Slogans are norms, that is, short-cut formulas for epitomizing predicaments people are in and what is to be done,” he explains. “You see it in every social movement, the American Revolution–‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’–and the French Revolution–‘Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite.’ The slogan is an anchor to hold onto. In this way, slogans help change attitudes and create new social norms. When I understood this, I decided to get to the bottom of it–that was my doctoral thesis.”

Sherif returned to Harvard to do research on perception and attitude formation and then completed his doctoral work in 1935 as a Rockefeller Fellow at Columbia University in New York. His doctoral dissertation, “A Study of Some Social Factors in Perception,” showed how even our perceptions of physical reality are molded by social influences (see “Social Norms and the Autokinetic Effect” box). The thesis was later expanded into a book, The Psychology of Social Norms, which has been reissued several times since 1936.

After several months of study in Paris, Sherif returned to Turkey in 1937, where group conflict (the threat of World War II) again dominated his life. He wrote his second book, Race Psychology (in Turkish), and through the years published several articles that argued against the Nazi ideology then very influential in Turkey. For his efforts he was arrested, he says, charged with “actions inimical to the national interest,” and the military-court prosecutor sought a 27-year prison sentence. Because the government of Turkey could see that the Allies were winning the war, the intervention of Harvard alumni in his behalf was successful. After 40 days in solitary confinement, he was released.

Late in 1944, Sherif was awarded a two-year State Department fellowship to do research and write a book at Princeton University with Hadley Cantril. From 1947 to 1949 he was a research fellow at Yale University, where he began his most celebrated and far-reaching set of experiments. The subject matter, again, was group conflict–how people come together to form social groups, how these groups come into conflict and how groups can learn to cooperate. The research, conducted with his wife, the late Carolyn Wood Sherif, continued at the University of Oklahoma and culminated in 1954 with the famous Robbers Cave experiment (see “Harmony and Conflict in the Robbers Cave” box). “This was the crowning touch of our work,” Sherif says.

“Conflict between groups–whether between boys’ gangs, social classes, races or nations–has no simple cause,” Sherif says, “nor is mankind yet in sight of a cure.” Nevertheless, his research, particularly the Robbers Cave experiment, did demonstrate vividly that it is possible to reduce friction and achieve harmony between opposing social groups by confronting them with what he calls “superordinate goals.” These are compelling goals for both groups, but they can be achieved only through the cooperation of both groups.

As director of the Institute of Group Relations at the University of Oklahoma from 1949 to 1966, Sherif continued to study the causes of and possible cures for intergroup conflict. He investigated how they applied to everything from schoolchildren’s squabbles, to labor-management problems, to race relations and, most importantly, to international relations.

In one set of experiments, for example, he evaluated a variety of techniques for reducing intergroup prejudice and hostility and found most of them wanting. Among these are disseminating positive information about the opposing group, fostering pleasant contacts between members of opposing groups and holding conferences of group leaders. “All of these measures, singly or in combination,” Sherif says, “may be helpful. But for any of them to be truly effective there must be one precondition, and that’s the awareness of the superordinate goals.”

Favorable information about a detested group, he explains, is likely to be ignored, rejected or reinterpreted to fit prevailing stereotypes. But when the groups are pulling together toward superordinate goals, true and favorable information about the other group is seen in a new light and the probability of the information’s being effective is greatly enhanced.

“It is true that lines of communication, that is, contact between groups, must be opened before prevailing hostilities can be reduced,” Sherif says. But, as was demonstrated in the Robbers Cave experiment, even pleasant contact between opposing groups may backfire and do nothing more than provide an opportunity for the groups to harass one another. However, when the groups or blocks of nations are forced to work toward a common goal, the contacts are more likely to be conducive to cooperation and reduction of tension.

Conferences of leaders, or summit conferences, also will be ineffective in reducing hostilities as long as the groups are directed toward mutually incompatible goals. Under these circumstances, even genuine moves by a leader to reduce conflict may be seen as a sign of weakness, such as “being soft on Communism” or “betraying the revolution.” Only when overriding, superordinate goals are introduced, Sherif says, will leaders be likely to receive support from the members of their own group.

“Superordinate goals are not merely an alternative measure,” according to Sherif. “They are necessary if the other measures are to be effective. Nations and their governing bodies have to realize that there is a state of interdependence. War means terrific destruction on both sides, no matter who has more hydrogen bombs. This is the paramount issue. Nothing can be as important, as all-inclusive, as intergroup relations.”

And that brings Sherif full cirlce, back to his early work on attitude change and social norms. “Attitude change is the most important problem today,” he says. “That’s where my heart lies.” The worldwide competiton for supremacy, the battle of ideologies between East and West has gotten us into what Sherif calls “our common predicament–the possibility that we will destroy ourselves.”

Preventing this, of course, is the superordinate goal, “the idea that there is no winning this thing unless the two great blocks of nations change their crystallized plans. In order to change attitudes they have to fully realize the urgency of maintaining the superordinate goal of peaceful existence. When this is realized, and many people do realize it, there will be new slogans, new norms, attitudes will change, there will be cooperation in resolving the common predicament.”

Sherif says, “I didn’t choose psychology as my profession just to make a living. It is my life. I take it very seriously. It has very serious consequences for me personally and for intergroup relations.”

Though he is retired, his long-term commitment still stands. He travels, lectures, organizes symposiums and, with his colleague Mary Alice Ericson, is working on two more books. “At 79 years of age,” he says, “there is still no respite. We have just got to find a workable way of dealing with intergroup hostilities.”

COPYRIGHT 1985 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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