Conformity to social roles

The Stanford Prison experiment (Zimbardo, 1973)

Would normal people behave brutally when asked to be guards in a mock prison?

Are people influenced by the social role they find themselves in?
The Stanford prison experiment (Zimbardo, 1973)
In 1960s America there were many concerns about the treatment of prisoners by prison guards. Many complaints were made by prisoners of violent and brutal attacks by the guards that were meant to be protecting and caring for them. Zimbardo wanted to find out exactly what made prison guards behave in this way, and in particular was it the situation they found themselves in (referred to as situational factors) or the personalities of the guards (referred to as dispositional factors). In other words, did the guards behave violently because the rigid power-based social structure within the prison made them behave that way (situational), or because they had aggressive and sadistic personalities that led them to choose to become prison guards (dispositional)?

Zimbardo aimed to investigate the difference between situational and dispositional factors in social roles by creating a mock prison in the basement of Stanford University. He recruited 12 participants to play the role of prison guards and 12 to play the role of prisoners from a pool of 75 male volunteers. All participants were screened for any psychological disorders, such as mental illness and drug taking, and only theses without any indications of instability or aggressive personalities were selected.

The prison had 16 rules which prisoners were expected to obey and the guards were expected to enforce, such as eating meals at specific times of day, needing to ask permission to write letters, or needing to ask permission to use the toilet. The guards were given a uniform that consisted of a shirt and mirrored sunglasses. At the start of the experiment, in order to make the prison appear as realistic as possible, the prisoners were arrested at their homes and taken to the prison where they were stripped, searched, deloused and given prison uniforms to wear.

The intention was to observe and film prison life for a period of 14 days, however what went on in the prison was so brutal and shocking that the experiment had to be terminated after just 6 days. Almost from the beginning the prisoners reacted to the way the guards were treating them by ripping their clothes off and shouting abuse. The guards responded by aggressively enforcing order and discipline within the prison. They used fire extinguishers against the prisoners, locked individuals in a dark broom cupboard for hours at a time, constantly harassed them, and even played prisoners off against each other. Over the few days the experiment ran for, the prisoners became more and more subdued and fell into a submissive role that feared and respected the guards. The guards began to enjoy the power associated with their roles, and their use of aggression and harassment steadily increased. Three prisoners had to be released early from the experiment due to the severe psychological distress they were showing signs of.

The participants selected by Zimbardo to be prison guards were all ordinary people who did not appear to be in any way sadistic, and so it would seem that the environment they found themselves in (situational factors) led them to adopt the brutal and aggressive behaviours they displayed. Both guards and prisoners rapidly conformed, in just a few days, to the social roles that the situation placed them in. It seems therefore that conformity to social roles is a powerful human behaviour, and one that it is very hard to avoid.

Deindividuation is a social process in which people when placed in group situation no longer act as individuals. They no longer behave in the same way that they would when alone, and instead pass all responsibility for their behaviour to the group. Their identity becomes that of the group. For example a prison guard will behave like a prison guard when in a prison and wearing a uniform, but will not behave like a prison guard in their personal life. Similarly prison inmates will behave as prison inmates when in prison, but outside prison will not behave that way.

Evaluating the Stanford prison experiment
  • Demand characteristics. As the participants knew they were taking part in an experiment and they knew they were being observed, they could have simply been playing what they believed was the role expected of them. In a real life situation they may not have behaved in the same way. However the level of brutal behaviour by the guards was far more extreme than would be expected when simply acting a role, and individual guards were sometimes even more sadistic to prisoners when they were alone without an audience.
  • Ethical considerations. Zimbardo has been criticised for carrying out an unethical study as he deliberately put participants into a situation that caused them physical and psychological harm. Zimbardo argued in his defence that he stopped the experiment when he realised it had become dangerous, and that he did everything he could to minimise psychological harm by holding extensive debriefing sessions with participants. The study did however provide a valuable insight into human behaviour.
  • Ecological validity. There are some key differences between the study and real life. For example, prison officers apply for jobs as prison officers and not as participants in an experiment where they could be either guard or inmate. Prisoners have all committed crimes and are in prison because they have been convicted, not because they are taking part in an experiment. And prison officers have families they go home to, they do not work 24 hours a day.

A Level exam tips
Answering exam questions (PSYA2 AQA A specification)
Outline and evaluate research into conformity to social roles (12 marks)
6 AO1 marks come from describing the aim, procedure, results and conclusion of the Stanford prison experiment.

6 AO2 marks come from evaluating the study. Discuss demand characteristics, ethics, and the value of the study to understanding human behaviour.