Your New Idea is not Where You Think it is

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In the 1950s, in rural Oklahoma, at a place called Robbers Cave, several researchers performed an experiment we would find unethical today. They invited twenty-two eleven-year-old boys to participate in a three week camp. The researchers advertised a wholesome summer camp experience. The experience they delivered was very different.

What the researchers actually did was to privately divide the boys into two groups of eleven each, and separate them for the first week so they had no contact, or knowledge, of the other group at all. Isolated, each group developed their own habits, expressions, favorite songs, and even their own group names, the Rattlers and the Eagles, which they painted on flags and T-shirts.

Then, after one week, the counselors informed each group of the existence of the other group. Their immediate reaction was to challenge the other group to sporting contests. The counselors arranged for Tug-of-War, baseball, a treasure hunt, and other sporting contests, and arranged for prizes to be rewarded to the winners.

The Rattlers spent the days leading up the baseball game joyous and confident that they would win. They carefully raked and managed the baseball field in preparation for the game, ultimately placing a “Keep Off” sign next to the field and placing a Rattlers sign near home base.

At the end of the first day, the Eagles had lost the Tug-of-War contest. On their way back to the cabins they noticed the Rattlers sign on the baseball field. They tore it down, stomped on it, and then burned it.

Well, the flag-burning incident started a whole ‘nuther level of battle as the camps took turns raiding the other groups’ cabins at night, stealing and vandalizing. They had food fights, and actual fights. Their animosity toward each other was real and vicious.

At breakfast on the last day of the tournament, the Rattlers sang “The enemy’s coming….” They described the Eagles as a “bunch of cussers,” “poor losers” and “bums.”

The boys who took part in this study back in the 1950s are in their 70s now, but in interviews they all have vivid recollections of the strong group cohesion of their own tribe, and the fierce animosity they held for the other group.

And it was all contrived by researchers. The dynamic of creating in-groups and out-groups was artificially constructed as a demonstration of intergroup conflict and in-group cooperation.

The interesting thing about in-group cohesion is that we almost always see our own in-group as more creative, intelligent, and diverse. And we see out-groups as more homogeneous, and less varied. This perception is amplified when opposing teams are in competitive situations.

When two opposing athletic teams, or product development teams, or sales teams, or companies in similar industries face off, we almost always think of our own in-group as more diverse, varied, flexible, and creative, and we think of the opposing team as all the same.

In one study, 90 sorority members all described their own sorority as having more dissimilar and unique members in their own group, than the other sororities. Basically, they believed that each of their own members were more special than members of other groups. It’s why we love our people. Our group is special.

So when your son does something stupid, and then rationalizes it by saying Joey did it first, you should not say, “So if Joey jumped off a cliff I suppose you would to?” Because he probably would.

Understand that other people in the world are not so different. We all have the same aspirations for health, safety, engaging and interesting work, a sense of purpose, and a sense of community. We may just have our own opinions on how to get there, and then align ourselves with others who think the same way.

Your best source for new ideas, inspiration and innovation is not going to come from asking the same people, from your same in-group, the same questions. Take a chance. Have lunch with someone new. Ask them about their work, their life. Just listen.