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Sherif, Muzafer

Sherif, Muzafer 1906-1988






Born in Turkey, Muzafer Sherif built a productive career as an experimental social psychologist. Upon receiving his masters degree at Istanbul University, he continued his studies in the United States, earning a masters degree at Harvard in 1932 and a PhD at Columbia in 1935. After spending the World War II years (1939-1945) in Turkey, Sherif returned to the United States as a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton and Yale. He then became a research professor of psychology at the University of Oklahoma and later a distinguished professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University. His tenure in these two rather different departments illustrates his unwavering commitment to social psychology as an interdisciplinary enterprise.


Sherif produced many creative studies, and his publications spanned five decades. He was most noted for three lines of research. The first was the focus of his doctoral dissertation, A Study of Some Social Factors in Perception. Inspired by the work of the French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) and the British anthropologist Bronislaw Kasper Malinowski (1884-1942), Sherif recognized the importance of the process of norm formation in a group situation. The dynamics of this process occurred when individuals faced a recurrent situation in which they were interdependent. In one of his studies Sherif looked at peoples judgments of the extent of movement of a pinpoint of light. He noted that when a person sees a small light in an otherwise completely dark room, it appears to move even though it is stationary. This autokinetic effect provided a suitable setting since it was an ambiguous situation when estimations were made of how far the light moved, thus lending itself to a variety of judgments.

Sherif had subjects give their perceptions individually over 100 trials and then in subsequent sessions in group situations. When estimating individually, subjects tended to form their own personal reference scales, but when brought together in a group, they tended to converge in their estimations. This convergence was regarded by Sherif as the essence of norm formation, one of the basic forms of social influence. In a variation in design Sherif sought to demonstrate that norms formed in a group situation would carry over into a situation in which other group members were not present.


The second line of research for which Sherif is responsible involved a series of intergroup summer camp studies. This series culminated in a 1954 study at Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma. There, twenty-two eleven-year-old boys faced tasks that divided them into groups. Those groups then competed vigorously for mutually exclusive goals and finally cooperated to achieve superordinate goals. The latter refers to goals that are highly desired by two groups but that can only be achieved through cooperation.

Groups grew into units with their own distinctive norms and status structure as a result of repeated interaction in situations of interdependence. When the groups interacted with antithetical goals, they formed negative stereotypes of each other and gave vent to hostility and aggression in many forms. Most importantly, when hostile groups interacted in a series of superordinate goals, hostility was diminished, and the stereotypes became more positive. Sherif s interest in intergroup relations was undoubtedly influenced by the turbulent events he witnessed as a Turkish youth as well as the American psychologist and philosopher William Jamess (1842-1910) 1906 essay The Moral Equivalent of War (1910).


The third line of research Sherif was responsible for initiating was his unique take on the subject of attitude change. His social judgment theory held that ones reaction to a communication, in terms of positive or negative attitude change, would depend on where one placed the communication. Misplacing a communication in the direction of ones own attitude, called assimilation, facilitated positive attitude change. Distortion of a communication away from ones own attitude position was called contrast, and when that occurred, attitude change in the direction opposite to that advocated by the communicator was predicted. Ego-involvement and discrepancy were also important concepts in social judgment theory. As involvement increased, positive attitude change decreased. As discrepancy increased, positive attitude change increased up to the point of inflection and decreased beyond that. Sherifs view was that it is more useful to think of an attitude as a series of zones (latitudes of acceptance, noncommitment, and rejection ) than as a single point on a numerical scale. In connection with this theory, two innovative measuring instruments were devised, the own categories procedure and the method of ordered alternatives.


Although Sherif is best known for his empirical contributions, he did have an overarching theory. That theory was centered on the concept of a frame of reference, conceived as the totality of external and internal factors operating at a given time. This concept was accompanied by a set of twelve propositions, as he outlined in his 1969 book published with Carolyn Wood Sherif. In that book he noted, The more unstructured the external stimulus situation, the greater the contribution of internal factors (Sherif and Sherif 1969, p. 62).

Another of Sherifs contributions to social psychology had to do with the role of experimentation in the research process. For Sherif, experimentation came late in the research process, only after one had gained an intimate knowledge of the phenomenon under consideration. In this way Sherif believed one could be confident that his or her research would have a bearing on real world events. Sherif saw himself as committed to doing basic research, but the implications were there for anyone interested in applied research.

SEE ALSO Attitudes; Durkheim, Émile; James, William; Malinowski, Bronislaw; Norms; Superordinate Goals


Granberg, Donald, and Gian Sarup.1992. Muzafer Sherif: Portrait of a Passionate Intellectual. In Social Judgment and Intergroup Relations: Essays in Honor of Muzafer Sherif, ed. Donald Granberg and Gian Sarup, 3-54. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Sherif, Muzafer. 1936. The Psychology of Social Norms. New York: Harper.

Sherif, Muzafer. 1966. In Common Predicament: Social Psychology of Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Sherif, Muzafer, and Carolyn Wood Sherif. 1969. Social Psychology. New York: Harper and Row.

Donald Granberg

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