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Up Against the Ropes: A social psychology experiment

Back in college while getting my B.A. in Psychology, I took a Social Psychology course and I just loved it.  Our professor did these wonderful group experiments designed to showcase the behaviors of people when they get in a group.  But one experiment in particular really upset and amazed me.  I’ll tell you what happened and why I was so upset.

For the experiment, our professor announced that he needed 4 male volunteers and that by participating in the experiment they had the chance to gain points they could apply to our upcoming test to improve their grade.  Free points basically.  People’s hands went up fast.  Our professor selected a big, beefy, muscular guy, two guys who were average in build, and one lean guy.

They sat on the floor in front of the class and our professor put this strange square-shaped board in front of them.  It had a rope that stretched in all four directions, circles drawn in each corner, and a pencil was attached right in the middle of the cross of ropes.  Professor put the muscular guy directly opposite the lean guy, and the two average guys across from each other and handed each guy an end of this rope.

Professor then said, “Your goal is to pull the pencil into your circle using your end of the rope and you can only use one hand.  Every time the pencil gets into your circle you get another point on your test.  You are NOT allowed to speak at any time, nor is anyone in the class.  You can use any means to get the pencil to your circle, just do not let the board leave the ground.  You’ll have 60 seconds.”  Can you guess what happened when he said, “Go!”

Everyone immediately pulled on their ropes, so the pencil didn’t move because it was being pulled on with the same force.  Muscular guy began using his muscles in earnest and was really tugging on his rope hard, which caused lean guy to panic since he could not compete with the guy’s muscles.  Muscular guy sensed victory, as lean guy began to lose ground.  The two other guys had roughly even strength so they were making no headway in bringing the pencil to their end of the board.  Muscular guy almost had his pencil in the circle.  And that’s when I saw the two average guys exchange a look that clearly read, “If we can’t get the pencil in our circles, no way we’re gonna let this guy get it in his.”  So they started pulling their ends of the rope back towards the lean guy!  Now it was 3 against 1.  The muscular guy looked betrayed as the other guys ganged up on him.  He redoubled his efforts, digging his legs into the ground and nearly standing up in his attempts to get those points!  After 60 seconds, no one had gotten a single point and all of them seemed really angry with each other. 

Our professor sent them back to their seats and said, “I wonder if the ladies would like to try?”  Same rules.  Four women volunteered.  I thought to myself, “Now we’re going to see some cooperation!”  They sat down, picked up their ropes, and the professor said, “Go.”  What do you think happened this time?

Not what I was expecting, I can tell you that!  All of the women pulled hard on their ropes, and one woman seemed to have a plan.  She pulled really hard on her end of the rope while everyone else did the same, but then she suddenly let go of her rope which sent all three of the other women flying backwards.  Sensing victory, she grabbed her end of rope again and pulled really hard.  But the other women were even more angry by this tactic than muscular guy had been when he got ganged up on.  So before she could get the pencil into her circle, they grabbed their ends of the rope and did everything they could to prevent her from getting a single point.  After 60 seconds, none of the women had a point. 

I was shocked by what I saw.  It was so obvious to me how this game needed to be played.  The teacher said, “Is there anyone else out there who thinks they know a way to get that pencil into their circle?”  I wanted to raise my hand but I was not confident enough back then, though I knew what had to be done.  So did four others.  Two boys and two girls went to the board and picked up their ropes.  Professor said, “Go!”  Immediately all four of them, without saying a word, dropped their ropes.  The rope lay there, untouched.  One person put her hand out and tentatively grabbed the rope.  With no resistance whatsoever from anyone else at the board, she pulled the pencil easily into her circle.  Then she dropped the rope and pointed to the person on her left.  This person picked up the rope and pulled the pencil into his circle, and then he too dropped the rope.  The next person did the same and finally number 4 did the same as well.  In this manner, they all took turns pulling the pencil into their circle.  By the time 60 seconds had passed, all of them had 10 points each.  No anger.  No animosity.  No pain.  No struggle.  No sides.  Just cooperation and trust.  Trust that if you let your neighbor get a point, he would let you get the next one.

That’s how this game needs to be played, people, and I’m not talking about the wooden board anymore.  What would happen if we all let go of our ropes?  What would happen if we just started trusting our neighbors?  Sure, maybe in the beginning someone would grab that rope and try to keep all the points for themselves.  But I truly believe that, deep in our hearts, when we feel like we’ll have enough “points” then we would gladly give others a chance to get some “points” too.  Don’t you think so?

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