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A Psychological Formulation of "Boys Alone: A Social Experiment"

Lisa dedicates her life to studying the behaviours of others. She is currently completing her BA in Psychology and Gender & Women's Studies.

Cutting Edge: Boys Alone

If you have not already, I would suggest watching the documentary for yourself before reading on.

In Bushey, a town in the county of Hertfordshire just northwest of London England, a group of 10 boys aged 11 – 12 were selected to stay in a house together with zero parental supervision for a total of 5 days, being left to rely on each other as social supports and to attempt to establish some form of unity between each other as a group. The house came fully stocked with toys, games, books, and paints, and the kitchen fully stocked with different food items available. Both a nurse and a child psychiatrist were available onsite, and the boys had access to a bell that they could ring if they needed any sort of help during their stay. The boys had a choice of staying in 1 of 2 bedrooms, one of which contained 6 beds and the other containing 4, each with cameras installed to monitor any overnight activity. During the day, a camera crew was present who never interacted or interfered with the boys, unless an incident occurred that could pose danger or harm towards any of the people onsite.

The purpose of this experiment is to, through a primarily postpositivist paradigm, examine how the boys’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviours towards both themselves and the other boys altered over the course of the 5 days that they were staying together unsupervised. It provides a deeper look into how adolescent boys interact with each other due to certain social norms or being in the presence of others, especially when there are very limited consequences to their actions and have a significantly increased amount of freedom. Specifically, the experiment is a reflection upon group living and social influence qualities, leadership and power dynamics, defiant and destructive behaviours, and the exploration of empathetic values within a group setting.

Group Living and Social Influence

While in a group setting, it becomes much easier for someone to become influenced by the people around them, compared to their cognitive processes while they are alone or are not required to work with other people. A large contributor to this phenomenon is social influence, especially during the age of adolescence. Social influence can be simply described as how the people around you impact your behaviour or attitudes as a result from their comments, actions, or simply their presence (Gilovich et al., 2019). Because adolescents have a very powerful sense of needing to belong, an initiative to feel accepted by their peers (McMahan & Thompson, 2015), social influence and conformity are large contributors to the events that took place throughout this experiment.

An example of this can be seen immediately upon the boys’ arrival to the house on the first morning, where the first 2 boys to enter are already portraying unruly behaviours by mindlessly kicking a ball at areas within the house as the boys following in behind them begin to copy their behaviours. They begin to encourage each other to embrace their newfound independence, making remarks such as “Oh, this is great!” and “Oi, wicked!” (Flitcroft, 2002, 1:25).

Although conformity was present between the boys, it is surprising how a select few did not conform very much (for example, Alex and Sim) as conformity is a very strong social phenomenon that most people do naturally without realizing. This could have to do with this select few simply having more reserved personalities, so they plainly did not have as much desire to participate in the rambunctious behaviours that flooded the atmosphere.

On the night of the first day, they all voted to elect a leader to help guide the group over the next 5 days, where the majority appointed George. Yet, after some time, group polarization began to occur. George being the leader kind of disbanded and they split into their own groups, creating more extreme decisions between the two groups which were labelled as “the loud ones” and “the quiet ones”. Because of this emergence of group polarization, the efficacy within the group as a whole started to disintegrate. When groups are cohesive and have a stronger sense of unity, the functioning of the group and the group members’ behaviours have a much higher chance of defecting into a more negative temperament (Gilovich et al., 2019).

This can explain the “war” that ascended between the 2 rooms as the 2 groups continued to delve deeper into their separation. This “war” was a tipping point for the boys, reaching a new level of hostility towards each other, most likely due to groupthink. Sam, one of “the quiet ones”, eventually surrendered to their “war” and went to communicate with “the loud ones." The rest of his group members were really taken aback by his decision because of their strive for consensus.

In a broader sense, the boys simply being around each other for 5 days straight had a large impact on their decisions. Zajonc’s Theory of Social Facilitation explains this anomaly by demonstrating the effects that the mere presence of others can have on one’s behaviours.

This figure demonstrates the effects that solely just being around others can have on one’s ability to choose their response and how well their behaviours will reflect on said response.

This figure demonstrates the effects that solely just being around others can have on one’s ability to choose their response and how well their behaviours will reflect on said response.

It is being argued that the boys’ mere exposure to each other is what expedited their behaviours. Because of the lack of supervision, their opportunity to engage in disorderly and impulsive behaviours increased, and because these behaviours come naturally to them as a dominant response, their performance was facilitated.

Leadership and Power Dynamics

The group’s decision to elect George as their leader had impacts on the development of their social tendencies while they were together. Generally, people end up in positions of leadership by relying on deception, by causing people to oppose each other, and through coercion, fear, and manipulation rather than honesty and inspiration (Gilovich et al., 2019). Groups tend to gravitate towards a person to be their leader if their skills and expertise are applicable to the situation, and George’s leadership role quickly fell out of line; it seems as if the boys chose a leader too soon.

It may, upon immediate speculation, be thought that choosing a leader for the group would provide mostly benefits instead of costs. But, people who feel powerless tend to be less effective in completing tasks, particularly cognitive ones. The wary and constricted focus that comes with lack of power can diminish the person’s ability to think fluidly and creatively (Gilovich et al., 2019). This power imbalance could have contributed in part to the boys’ continuous destructive behaviours due to social preference for some boys being stronger than others.

Essentially, the boys now have a newfound independence and power, whether they are the leader or not, so they are taking full advantage of it. This desire for power is contradicted by a lack of it, which they definitely had before coming to the house. This opportunity provides a greater sense of control for the boys, contributing to having power over the objects within the house. This raw power is part of what has contributed to the destruction of basically the entire house over the course of only 5 days.

Defiance and Destructive Behaviour

For the most part, each of the boys seem to be capable of good behaviour. Although it is evident that out of the 10 of them, Michael is the biggest nuisance, having broke the foosball table, guitar, broom, a chair, and threw a basketball on top of the roof, with Daniel stating “I wish we could kick Michael out” (Flitcroft, 2002, 31:00). Michael seems to have adopted, or his personality already complied with, disruptive behaviours. When someone has an elevated sense of power, there is a correlation present for increased antisocial behaviour in the individual (Gilovich et al., 2019).

Although Michael was not the designated leader, he brought a lot of attention to himself and people easily noticed him, possibly being the cause for his perniciously habitual behaviours. These behaviours are also related to conformity, as most people who are put in a situation where they can be destructive, they will go ahead and do so (Gilovich et al., 2019); the boys conformed to each other’s detrimental behaviours when some of them, if alone, would not have done so.

Aggressiveness in adolescents is usually tied to being disliked (McMahan & Thompson, 2015), and Michael lacked social preference due to his disruptive behaviours. The 9 other boys had all at some point expressed some level of antipathy for Michael, eventually leading to an involvement with the child psychiatrist onsite, Dr. Scott. After the boys’ meeting with her, Michael’s actions were clearly reflective of ostracization. His isolative behaviours were surprising as it would be suspected that he would act out even more, as youth tend to act out due to suppressed emotions and built-up tension, which he was openly experiencing.

Apart from destruction of the objects within the house and the house itself, relational aggression was also partially present. Relational aggression pertains to offensive behaviours which attack the victim’s social relationships, such as through ridicule, exclusion, or gossip (McMahan & Thompson, 2015). A prime example of this is when Michael tried to persuade George to leave Sim when Sim needed the company (Flitcroft, 2002, 14:35); Michael was trying to further exclude Sim. Sim was also consistently mocked by the other boys behind his back.

Empathetic Values in Group Function

Empathy can be described as cognitive and affective amplitudes and sensitive responses to someone else who is distressed, connecting oneself to the other person on an emotional level by psychologically placing oneself in their position (Nickerson & Mele-Taylor, 2014). Out of all 10 boys, George seems to have the greatest sense of empathy, and Michael the lowest, which is quite reflective in their behaviours, especially towards the others. Boys who bully others tend to have lower levels of empathetic responsiveness, so theoretically, if levels of empathy are overall increased within a group of people, bullying and passive bystanding should decrease, and defending victims should increase (Nickerson & Mele-Taylor, 2014). Consequentially, the group norms have a substantial impact on the amount of aggression and, contrastingly, empathy.

Since the boys all began trashing the house immediately upon arrival, such type of behaviour became the group norm. Showcasing empathetic behaviours would be deviating away from the group norm, which is quite rare as individual group members gravitate towards being as similar to the other group members as possible, usually becoming increasingly similar to each other over time (Nickerson & Mele-Taylor, 2014). Conjointly, it has been theorized that boys’ ability to empathize with others and put change into their perspective to someone else’s experiences plummets during early to middle adolescence (Nickerson & Mele-Taylor, 2014), the exact age range that the boys within this social experiment fall under. It could be argued, then, that part of the boys’ general lack of empathy for each other could simply be due to their nature and where they are in the current development trajectory.

Ethical Issues and Possible Biases

According to the Tri-Council Policy Statement (TCPS2), there are three primary principles surrounding the ethical treatment during research experiments: respect for persons, concern for welfare, and justice (Cozby et al., 2020). Respect for persons was followed, as they had a child psychiatrist and a nurse onsite, the parents consented to their sons going, the boys could leave the study at anytime, and a bell was available for the boys to ring at anytime they required assistance. Concern for welfare was not fully followed.

Substantial risks came with this study, such as increased possibilities for violence, repercussions of bad decisions that could not be intervened with unless severe in nature, lack of ability to provide oneself with proper sustenance and overall care, and a highly increased chance of experiencing psychological stress. Although, the benefits of this study do outweigh the risks. This study provided a lot of insight into the development of adolescent boys, and how parent presence and availability is paramount to a child’s success. Justice was somewhat followed; there was only one social group used, although it is a possibility that other social groups were excluded for the purpose of the experiment.

This experiment is greater than minimal risk research. It is suspected that if a replica of this experiment were done in modern-day Canada, the Research Ethics Board (REB) would not approve of it. As well, observer bias is doubtlessly present in this experiment.

Conclusion

It has been enumerated that the social dynamic of the intertwining of each of the boys’ personalities and their opportunity to have an abundance of power for young adolescents is what primarily drove them to produce the behaviours that they did. If George also lacked empathy like the rest of the boys tended to, the situation would have been noticeably different. Although Michael’s behaviour was problematic for a majority of the time over the 5-day span, his demeanors kept the other boys in check, allowing them to regulate their own behaviours as they know what is deeply aggravating and out-of-line. Yet most noticeably, the group setting is what seems to have had the largest influence on what transpired over the time period that the boys were in the house together. The capability of conformity, the intermingling of each boys’ social identity, and simply being stuck to interact with each other for 5 days immeasurably created the actions and behaviours which transpired out of the experiment.

References

Cozby, P. C., Mar, R. A., & Rawn, C. D. (2020). Methods in behavioural research (3rd Canadian ed.). McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited.

Flitcroft, K. (2002, May 30). Cutting edge: Boys alone (D. G. Hill, Ed.; No. 55) [TV series episode]. Channel 4 Television Corporation.

Gilovich, T., Keltner, D., Chen, S., & Nisbett, R. E. (2019). Social psychology (5th ed.). W. W. Norton & Company Inc.

McMahan, I., & Thompson, S. (2015). Adolescence (Canadian ed.). Pearson Canada Inc.

Nickerson, A. B., & Mele-Taylor, D. (2014). Empathetic responsiveness, group norms, and prosocial affiliations in bullying roles. School Psychology Quarterly, 29(1), 99–109. https://doi.org/10.1037/spq0000052

© 2021 Lisa Hallam

Comments

Lisa Hallam (author) from Toronto, ON on May 30, 2021:

Glad you enjoyed and I appreciate your comment!

Thanks John

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on May 29, 2021:

A very interesting experiment and I enjoyed your analysis. Thanks for sharing.

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