Muzafer Sherif

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Muzafer Sherif
Born July 29, 1906
Ödemiş, Aidin Vilayet, Ottoman Empire
Died October 16, 1988 (aged 82)
Fairbanks, Alaska, USA
Residence Turkey (1906–1945)
United States (1945–1988)
Nationality Turkish-American
Alma mater İstanbul University, Columbia University
Known for Social psychology (Group conformity, Robbers Cave Experiment)
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]
Scientific career
Fields Psychology (social)
Institutions Princeton University, Yale University, University of Oklahoma,
Pennsylvania State University

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.[citation needed]

Life and career[edit]

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

Sherif received a BA at the Izmir American College in Turkey in 1926,[3] and an MA at the University of Istanbul in 1928.[4] Sherif then went to America, earning an MA from Harvard University. He enrolled at Columbia University, and in 1935 earned a PhD 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). They had three daughters: Ann, Sue and Joan.

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] His academic appointments included Yale University, the University of Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania State University.

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 died on October 16, 1988, in Fairbanks, Alaska, at the age of 82.[6]

Contributions to psychology[edit]

Sherif made important contributions to social psychological theory, field and laboratory methodology, and to the application of research to social issues.[7] He wrote more than 60 articles and 24 books. The majority of his research was done with his wife, Carolyn Wood Sherif.[8]

Autokinetic effect experiments[edit]

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.[9] 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.

Realistic conflict theory and the Robbers Cave experiment[edit]

In 1961, Sherif and Carolyn Wood Sherif developed realistic conflict theory, which has been described as "account[ing] for inner group conflict, negative prejudices, and stereotypes as a result of actual competition between groups for desired resources."[8] This theory was based in part on the 1954 Robber's Cave experiment.[10]

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."[8] The participants were carefully screened to be psychologically normal, and they did not know each other. Sending them to such a remote location was done to reduce the influence of external factors and better allow the true nature of conflict and prejudice to be studied.[8]

Researchers, who doubled as counsellors at this summer camp, divided the participants into two different groups, and each group were assigned cabins far from the other. 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".[8] In this "ingroup formation" phase, members of the groups got to know each other, social norms developed and leadership and structure emerged.

Then the second, group conflict or "friction" phase began, in which the groups came into contact with each other. Researchers set up a four-day competitions between those groups with promised prizes to the winners. Prejudice became apparent between the two groups. The prejudice was initially only verbally expressed, such as through taunting or name calling, but as the competition progressed, the prejudice began being expressed more directly, such as with one group burning the other's flag or ransacking their cabin. The groups became too aggressive with each other to control; the researchers had to separate them physically.[8]

Researchers then gave all boys a two-day cooling-off period, and asked them to list characteristics of the two groups. The boys tended to characterize their own group highly favourably and the other group very negatively. The researchers then attempted to reduce the prejudice between the groups, and found that simply increasing their contact with each other made matters worse. In contrast, "Forcing the groups to work together to reach subordinate goals, or common goals, eased the prejudice and tension among the groups".[8] Thus, in this "integration" or conflict resolution phase, it was shown that superordinate goals reduce conflict significantly more effectively than communication or contact did.


  1. ^ Harvey, O.J. (October 1989). "Muzafer Sherif (1906–1988)". American Psychologist. 44 (10): 1325–1326. doi:10.1037/h0091637. Retrieved 21 November 2012.
  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. ^ [1]
  8. ^ a b c d e f g "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-09-01. Retrieved 2012-08-13.
  9. ^ Jaan Valsiner. Comparative study of human cultural development. Fundacion Infancia y Aprendizaje.
  10. ^ 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.