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Conformity to Social Roles as Investigated by Zimbardo

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

Zimbardo (1973) conducted an extremely controversial study on conformity to social roles, called the Stanford Prison Experiment.

His aim was to examine whether people would conform to the social roles of a prison guard or prisoner, when placed in a mock prison environment. Furthermore, he also wanted to examine whether the behaviour displayed in prisons was due to internal dispositional factors, the people themselves, or external situational factors, the environment and conditions of the prison.

Zimbardo’s sample consisted of 21 male university students who volunteered in response to a newspaper advert. The participants were selected on the basis of their physical and mental stability and were each paid $15 a day to take part. The participants were randomly assigned to one of two social roles, prisoners or guards.

Zimbardo wanted to make the experience as realistic as possible, turning the basement of Stanford University into a mock prison. Furthermore, the ‘prisoners’ were arrested by real local police and fingerprinted, stripped and given a numbered smocked to wear, with chains placed around their ankles. The guards were given uniforms, dark reflective sunglasses, handcuffs and a truncheon. The guards were instructed to run the prison without using physical violence. The experiment was set to run for two weeks.

Zimbardo found that both the prisoners and guards quickly identified with their social roles. Within days the prisoners rebelled, but this was quickly crushed by the guards, who then grew increasingly abusive towards the prisoners. The guards dehumanised the prisoners, waking them during the night and forcing them to clean toilets with their bare hands; the prisoners became increasingly submissive, identifying further with their subordinate role.

Five of the prisoners were released from the experiment early, because of their adverse reactions to the physical and mental torment, for example, crying and extreme anxiety. Although the experiment was set to run for two weeks, it was terminated after just six days, when fellow postgraduate student Christina Maslach convinced Zimbardo that conditions in his experiment were inhumane. [Maslach later became Zimbardo’s wife].

Zimbardo concluded that people quickly conform to social roles, even when the role goes against their moral principles. Furthermore, he concluded that situational factors were largely responsible for the behaviour found, as none of the participants had ever demonstrated these behaviours previously.

Evaluation of Zimbardo

A recent replication of the Stanford Prison Experiment, carried out by Reicher and Haslam (2006), contradicts the findings of Zimbardo.

Reicher and Haslam replicated Zimbardo’s research by randomly assigning 15 men to the role of prisoner or guard. In this replication, the participants did not conform to their social roles automatically. For example, the guards did not identify with their status and refused to impose their authority; the prisoners identified as a group to challenge the guard’s authority, which resulted in a shift of power and a collapse of the prison system. These results clearly contradict the findings of Zimbardo and suggest that conformity to social roles may not automatic, as Zimbardo originally implied.

Furthermore, individual differences and personality also determine the extent to which a person conforms to social roles. In Zimbardo’s original experiment the behaviour of the guards varied dramatically, from extremely sadistic behaviour to a few good guards who helped the prisoners. This suggests that situational factors are not the only cause of conformity to social roles and dispositional factors also play a role.

Zimbardo’s experiment has been heavily criticised for breaking many ethical guidelines, in particular, protection from harm. Five of the prisoners left the experiment early because of their adverse reactions to the physical and mental torment. Furthermore, some of the guards reported feelings of anxiety and guilt, as a result of their actions during the Stanford Prison Experiment. Although Zimbardo followed the ethical guidelines of Stanford University and debriefed his participants afterwards, he acknowledged that the study should have been stopped earlier.

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