Share: Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

There was a legendary episode in social psychology called the Robbers Cave experiment. It had been set up in the bewildered aftermath of World War II, with the intent of investigating the causes and remedies of conflicts between groups. The scientists had set up a summer camp for 22 boys from 22 different schools, selecting them to all be from stable middle-class families. The first phase of the experiment had been intended to investigate what it took to start a conflict between groups. The 22 boys had been divided into two groups of 11 –
– and this had been quite sufficient.
The hostility had started from the moment the two groups had become aware of each others’ existences in the state park, insults being hurled on the first meeting. They’d named themselves the Eagles and the Rattlers (they hadn’t needed names for themselves when they thought they were the only ones in the park) and had proceeded to develop contrasting group stereotypes, the Rattlers thinking of themselves as rough-and-tough and swearing heavily, the Eagles correspondingly deciding to think of themselves as upright-and-proper.
The other part of the experiment had been testing how to resolve group conflicts. Bringing the boys together to watch fireworks hadn’t worked at all. They’d just shouted at each other and stayed apart. What had worked was warning them that there might be vandals in the park, and the two groups needing to work together to solve a failure of the park’s water system. A common task, a common enemy.
Harry had a strong suspicion Professor Quirrell had understood this principle very well indeed when he had chosen to create three armies per year.

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