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Muzafer Sherif

Muzafer Sherif
Born July 29, 1906
Ödemiş, İzmir, Turkey
Died October 16, 1988 (aged 82)
Fairbanks, Alaska, USA
Residence Turkey (1906–1945)
United States (1945–1988)
Nationality Turkish-American
Fields Psychology (social)
Institutions Princeton University, Yale University, University of Oklahoma,
Pennsylvania State University
Alma mater İstanbul University, Columbia University
Known for Social psychology (Group conformity, Robbers Cave Experiment)
Notable awards Honored by Division 8 of the American Psychological Association in 1966. He received both a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and the Kurt Lewin Memorial Award from Division 9 in 1967.[1]

Muzafer Sherif (born Muzaffer Şerif Başoğlu; July 29, 1906 – October 16, 1988) was a Turkish-American social psychologist. He helped develop social judgment theory and realistic conflict theory.

Sherif was a founder of modern social psychology, who developed several unique and powerful techniques for understanding social processes, particularly social norms and social conflict. Many of his original contributions to social psychology have been absorbed into the field so fully that his role in the development and discovery has disappeared. Other reformulations of social psychology have taken his contributions for granted, and re-presented his ideas as new.


  • Personal life 1
  • Experimental Contributions 2
  • Realistic conflict theory 3
  • Contributions 4
  • References 5

Personal life

Muzafer Sherif grew up in a fairly wealthy family that included five children, of whom he was the second born.[2]

Sherif received a B.A. at the Izmir American College in Turkey in 1926,[3] and an M.A. at the University of Istanbul in 1928.[4] Sherif then went to America, earning an M.A. from Harvard University. He enrolled at Columbia University, and in 1935 earned a Ph.D. with Gardner Murphy.

In 1945 he married Carolyn Wood, and they collaborated productively on subsequent projects for many years, on scholarly books (e.g., Sherif & Sherif, 1953) and a still-useful textbook (Sherif & Sherif, 1969).

Although mostly recognized as a psychologist, Muzafer was the first to obtain the Cooley-Mead Award for Contributions to Social Psychology from the American Sociological Association.[5]

He was father of three daughters, Ann, Sue and Joan.

According to his daughter, Sue, whom Sherif was living with at that time, Sherif was in good spirits when he was stricken with a fatal heart attack. He had died on October 16, 1988, at Fairbanks Alaska at the age of 82.[6]

Experimental Contributions

Autokinetic Effect Experiments

His dissertation was titled "Some Social Factors In Perception" and the ideas and research were the basis for his first classic book "The Psychology of Social Norms."

The topic of his dissertation was social influence in perception, and the experiments have come to be known as the "autokinetic effect" experiments. Sherif's experimental study of autokinetic movement demonstrated how mental evaluation norms were created by human beings.[7] In an otherwise totally dark room, a small dot of light is shown on a wall, and after a few moments, the dot appears to move. This effect is entirely inside-the-head, and results from the complete lack of "frame of reference" for the movement. Three participants enter the dark room, and watch the light. It appears to move, and the participants are asked to estimate how far the dot of light moves. These estimates are made out loud, and with repeated trials, each group of three converges on an estimate. Some groups converged on a high estimate, some low, and some in-between. The critical finding is that groups found their own level, their own "social norm" of perception. This occurred naturally, without discussion or prompting.

When invited back individually a week later and tested alone in the dark room, participants replicated their original groups' estimates. This suggests that the influence of the group was informational rather than coercive; because they continued to perceive individually what they had as members of a group, Sherif concluded that they had internalized their original group's way of seeing the world. Because the phenomenon of the autokinetic effect is entirely a product of a person's own perceptual system, this study is evidence of how the social world pierces the person's skin, and affects the way they understand their own physical and psychological sensations.

Robbers Cave Experiments

Sherif is equally famous for the Robbers Cave Experiments. This series of experiments, begun in Connecticut and concluded in Oklahoma, took boys from intact middle-class families, who were carefully screened to be psychologically normal, delivered them to a summer camp setting (with researchers doubling as counsellors) and created social groups that came into conflict with each other. These studies had three phases: (1) Group formation, in which the members of groups got to know each others, social norms developed, leadership and structure emerged, (2) Group conflict, in which the now-formed groups came into contact with each other, competing in games and challenges, and competing for control of territory, and (3) Conflict resolution, where Sherif and colleagues tried various means of reducing the animosity and low-level violence between the groups. It is in the Robbers Cave experiments that Sherif showed that superordinate goals (goals so large that it requires more than one group to achieve the goal) reduced conflict significantly more effectively than other strategies (e.g., communication, contact).

Sherif's academic appointments included Yale University, the University of Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania State University.

Realistic conflict theory

A famous theory today, the Realistic Conflict Theory, was developed by Sherif in 1961, which "accounts for inner group conflict, negative prejudices, and stereotypes as a result of actual competition between groups for desired resources." This theory is validated by one his most famous experiments, "The Robber's Cave" (Harvey, White, Hood & Sherif, 1961).[8]

In the experiment, "22 white, fifth grade, 11 year old boys with average-to- good school performance and above average intelligence with a protestant, two parent background were sent to a special remote summer camp in Oklahoma, Robbers Cave State Park." The purpose to send them to the remoteness is to ensure the study is not influenced by external factors, so that the true nature of conflict and prejudice would be studied. The participants did not know each other. Researchers divided them into two different groups and each one were assigned cabins far from one another. During the first phase, groups did not know the existence of the others. "The boys developed an attachment to their groups throughout the first week of the camp by doing various activities together: hiking, swimming, etc. The boys chose names for their groups, The Eagles and The Rattlers, and stenciled them onto shirts and flags"(Baron, Byrne 1997; Cialdini, Kenrick, Neuberg, 1999).

Then researchers set up a four-day competitions between those groups with promised prizes to the winners. As long as the competition continued, prejudice began to become apparent between the two groups. The prejudice was only verbally expressed, such as through taunting or name calling; However, as the competition progressed, verbal expressions became more direct: "The Eagles burned the The Rattler's flag; The Ratler's ransacked The Eagle's cabin, overturned beds, and stole private property." The groups became too aggressive with each other to control; the researchers had to separate them physically (Baron, Byrne 1997; Cialdini, Kenrick, Neuberg, 1999).

Researchers then gave all boys a two-day cooling-off period, and asked them to list characteristics of the two groups. Each of group tended to make higher evaluations for their own group, and characterized the other group in extremely unfavorable terms. "Sherif then attempted to reduce the prejudice between the two groups. Simply by increasing the contact of the two groups only made the situation worse. Forcing the groups to work together to reach subordinate goals, or common goals, eased the prejudice and tension among the groups (Baron, Byrne 1997; Cialdini, Kenrick, Neuberg,1999)."

This experiment confirmed Sherif's realistic conflict theory.[9]


Sherif has written more than 60 articles and 24 books. The majority of his research was done with his wife.[10]

Sherif made important contributions to social psychological theory, field and laboratory methodology, and to the application of research to social issues.[11]


  1. ^ Harvey, O.J. (October 1989). "Muzafer Sherif (1906–1988)". American Psychologist 44 (10): 1325–1326.  
  2. ^ Muzafer Sherif (1906–1988) American Psychologist (October 1989), 44 (10), pg. 1325-1326, O.J. Harvey
  3. ^ O.J. Harvey, "Muzafer Sherif Obituary", "Scholars Portal Journals", 9 April 2012
  4. ^ O.J. Harvey, "Muzafer Sherif Obituary", "Scholars Portal Journals", 9 April 2012
  5. ^ Harvey O.J., (1989). "Muzafer Sherif (1906-1988)". American Psychologist. 44(10): 1325-1326
  6. ^ Harvey, O. (1989). Sherif, Muzafer (1906-1988), American Psychologist, 44(10), 1325-1326.
  7. ^ Jaan Valsiner. Comparative study of human cultural development. Fundacion Infancia y Aprendizaje. 
  8. ^ Harvey, O. J., White, B. J., Hood, W. R., & Sherif, C. W. (1961). Intergroup conflict and cooperation: The Robbers Cave experiment (Vol. 10). Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ [1]
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