A new book about the 1950s Robbers Cave experiment details how subterfuge and manipulation were used to turn ‘upstanding 11-year-olds’ into ‘brutal savages’

• The inside story of the Robbers Cave experiment

After the sun had gone down, the boys raced one another from the swimming hole to their cabins. They were still jubilant from their win, fizzing with excitement, eager to get back and pass around their prize again, the handsome silver knives fanned out on a stiff cardboard stand. Will shouted: “Told y’all!” triumphantly when he reached the cabin first. Panting and laughing, he threw open the cabin door – and stopped dead. Mattresses hung drunkenly from the bunks; pillows and clothes and comic books spilled across the floor. The knives, which they’d put on a makeshift table by the window, were gone. He let his breath out in a rush, then turned and started running, pushing past the group of dismayed boys who had crowded in behind him.

Outside, the long twilight was fading. He heard the others calling to him to wait up, but he didn’t stop. He ran along the dusty track, feet pounding, and across the stream, his heart racing so hard he could hear his blood thrumming in his ears. Behind him the others had almost caught him up. The jumble of their voices quietened and the air was full of the sound of panting breaths. No need to stop and think, they just followed their instincts – an animal need to retrieve what was theirs. Will raced past the mess hall, where the sounds of a cowboy tune twanging on the radio and the clatter of dishes reminded him of home, of his parents’ heads bowed as they said grace over supper. But he ran faster, thrusting those images behind him. When he first came here, he tried not to think about what animals were moving through the dark. Now he bared his teeth as he ran. Tonight he wouldn’t be scared if a mountain lion stepped out of the shadows, or a bear climbed down from a tree. Behind him, the other boys rushed. They were a single panting pack, zigzagging in and out of trees, feet flying, crushing pine needles, startling birds.

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