My Culture vs. Your Culture

It wasn't the Stanford Prison Experiment, but a research project at U of California San Diego quickly created two student societies and plenty of conflict to analyze.

December 2, 2015

The track record for social experiments involving students has some pretty frightening low points. Philip Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment continues to fascinate students and the public, even if the project would likely never be permitted today.

Deborah Downing Wilson (at right) had studied psychology and was, of course, aware of those experiments before she conducted one of her own at the University of California at San Diego, she explained in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. But for the most part they remained tucked safely in the back of her head.

“I should have paid more attention to them, so I would have been better prepared,” she said. “At the time it never occurred to me we would become that emotionally engaged.”

Wilson describes her experiences and the results of an in-class social simulation she conducted in 2008 in her new book, The Stone Soup Experiment: Why Cultural Boundaries Persist (University of Chicago Press). The eponymous experiment never came anywhere close to the nadir established by Zimbardo at Stanford, but Wilson, her colleagues and her students were all surprised by how intense, antagonistic and powerful their own simulation became and how resilient and ingrained its effects turned out to be.

The idea was to study cross-cultural relations by dividing a class of 40 students into two groups, giving each its own unique “culture” to independently develop and build, and then slowly introducing the two groups to one another.

“We were all surprised at how easily two groups of participants, which were essentially alike going into the experiment, constructed two very different cultural frameworks for thinking about the events of the class, and two different sets of cultural lenses through which they viewed and evaluated not only all of the class activities but each other as well,” Wilson explained. “One of the more disturbing findings was just how easily ideas can be planted in groups and how profoundly they can impact the trajectory of a group’s future.”

During the first class session of Intercultural Communication, an otherwise unassuming upper-division course in the communications department, 40 students discovered they would be participating in a research project and social simulation designed to study cross-cultural interaction. After a flurry of hesitant but curious waiver signing, the students were randomly separated into either an Alpha or Beta culture, and were then separated again, physically, in two rooms on adjacent floors of the building, where they were given some basic information about their cultures. For the first half of the academic quarter (five weeks), the two groups met separately, participating in the simulation and writing reports of their experiences for homework. In the latter half of the quarter, the two groups reconvened, shed the simulation and tried, in many ways unsuccessfully, to objectively unpack and analyze what they had all been through.

Each group was presented with a foundational parable emphasizing the values their culture held most dear as well as additional rules and a simple game, or “work,” designed to engage those values and guidelines. The Alpha’s parable was based on a centuries-old folktale about a town tricked into collaborating in order to make soup, and the Betas were given a modified version of the Parable of the Talents from the New Testament.

From the book: “On this first day Alphas learned that their society was a benevolent matriarchy where warmth, affection and tolerance were valued above all else. Alphas were instructed to stand close, touch often and show genuine concern for each other’s welfare. They were never, under any circumstances, to be impatient, unkind, angry or aggressive.” Their “work” was a simple card game meant to encourage social interaction.

The Betas, on the other hand, learned that “their worth was determined during the 15 minutes that they spent on the trading floor each day. Little mattered outside their ability to be effective traders. A successful Betan was honest, consistent, persistent and able to drive a hard bargain.” Trading, or “work,” for the Betas involved a more complex and competitive card game.

Via a special trading language for the Betas and strict social rules for the Alphas, both cultures were given facets the other was meant to find opaque and hard to follow. During that first class, the groups also settled on names for their own cultures: “Stone Soup” for the Alphas and “Fair Trade Cartel” for the Betas.

Students quickly embraced their simulated cultures and began developing them further with new rules, traditions and embellishments. The Stoners, as both Wilson and the students came to identify the Alpha group, developed a complex mix of real and imagined narratives for their grandmothers, for example. Expanding and adding to those stories became a fundamental exercise in their culture, and “how is your grandmother” became a common greeting.

The Traders took to their trading game with enthusiasm and collectively altered or created new rules and practices to address problems. Students in both groups expressed near-universal affinity for their own cultures despite having been randomly sorted. That, though, was one of the first signs of trouble.

Wilson said she was also surprised by “how durable these social systems proved to be. The boundaries between the two cultures emerged easily and almost immediately, and were continually reinforced. Negotiating these boundaries was a lot more difficult than creating them, and we were not successful at breaking them down in the class as it was structured at the time.”

Problems arose almost immediately as the two groups began sending delegations to visit, observe and eventually interact with the other’s culture. Both were forced to deal with a number of cross-cultural incidents and affronts (a stolen coin, for example). But more worrying: students in each group rapidly formed impressions of the opposite culture and visions of their own that intensified throughout the simulation, persisted even after it ended and became the cause of more than a little animosity.

Wilson had all the students write extensive field notes cataloging not only their observations but their feelings about each class’s events. In their dispatches, the Traders almost immediately dubbed the Stoners “simple,” “immature” and “primitive.” And, by the end of the simulation, the Stoners had largely decided their counterparts had a morally bankrupt and underdeveloped culture focused solely on monetary gain.

Even the instructors weren’t immune to the partisan side taking. “You’re a bunch of money grubbers!” said one of the assisting instructors. To which Wilson herself said, “I take offense to that! We are a culture of people who strive for personal best! We have morals and rules! It’s not our intention to take advantage of others. We may be aggressive, but we’re always fair.”

Neither Wilson nor the other instructor actively participated in the activities with either culture, but both spent most of their time with only one.

“Not only did the two cultures draw different conclusions about themselves and each other, but they each painted deeply negative pictures of the opposite culture and highly flattering pictures of their own,” wrote Wilson. And, asked about what most surprised her and her colleagues, Wilson wrote, “On this all of us involved in the project agreed. Within the first weeks of the simulation the events began to feel unbelievably real to each of us. No one in the project predicted the intensity of the emotional investments we would be making.”

Nor, said Wilson, did “the two sides never came to a shared understanding of what had taken place.”

No one outside the project predicted it, either. The college's institutional review board gave Wilson the green light with little trouble. "Had the board known how intense it would get, they might have had more concerns," Wilson said. Instead, the only hiccup was a question about how a fair grading policy could be applied to work Wilson planned to use in her own research. After settling on a solution -- anonymous waivers and grades based on deadlines and word count rather than content -- the course sailed through the approval process.

Real-world analogues for issues raised by Wilson’s experiment aren’t hard to come by, particularly as racial tensions have flared on numerous colleges campuses around the country in recent weeks. On Wilson’s own San Diego campus in the aftermath of the experiment, just as she was working to synthesize her findings, a noose hung from a library bookcase incited campus protests.

It’s easy to come away from Wilson’s book feeling pessimistic about cross-cultural relations and interactions (“I know!” said Wilson. “I’m so sorry! That wasn’t our intention”). But the most important lesson, according to Wilson, of the experiment is nonetheless important and relevant: “Just to understand how easily these processes can develop and how difficult they are to break.”

Wilson said she plans to run a new version of the experiment in the spring. This time, however, she is going to include a third segment, “a community service project that will require the combined efforts of the students … We are hoping that the service project in the middle will serve to break down, or at least minimize, any boundaries between the groups that develop during the simulation.”


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