The Stanford Prison Experiment is one of the most notorious and interesting experiments in recent social psychology history. Even though the goals of this experiment were to study the psychological effects of prison on people, it shed some light on how our behaviors can be changed through the roles we participate in. Current research, and role theory, has suggested that roles play a part in our identities and behavior. Parallels between the Stanford Prison Experiment and current research will be studied.
A Study on Societal Roles: An Examination of the Stanford Prison Experiment
We play many roles in our day to day life: wife, mother, sister, friend, and coworker. Each role has implied duties that we may or may not be so aware of. We work diligently at balancing all of our responsibilities, which if balance is not attained, could lead to dysfunction in a person’s life. In order to lead a healthy life, one must examine each role he or she plays. A Stanford social psychology professor, Phillip Zimbardo, was one of the pioneers in exploring social roles, behaviors, and how they are affected by certain situations. His radical research experiment opened up the eyes of the participants and many others as to what we will do in order to fulfill our roles.
Zimbardo spent most of his early career conducting behavioral studies that focused on biological processes such as hunger and thirst. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that he really began to focus on social psychology issues, such as conformity. Philip Zimbardo’s experiment on prison life demonstrated how quickly a person can dissolve their own identity to fit into the social roles expected of them. The outcome and aftermath of this experiment is still important in current day psychology. First, Zimbardo chose the participants of the experiment to reflect the common or average individuals in the current society. According to Zimbardo, most were college aged, white males, who were from a middle class socioeconomic background (Haney, Banks, & Zimbardo, 1973). After random assignment, the prisoner participants were arrested, booked, and then taken to the prison (Zimbardo, Haney, Banks, & Jaffe, 1973). In an attempt to make the prison relatively realistic, Zimbardo spent a great deal of time with the details such as the appearance of the prison and the cells, the uniforms of the guards, and the entry process for the prisoners on the first day. All of these components were planned in an effort to dehumanize, demoralize, and emasculate the prisoners (Zimbardo et al, 1973). The uniforms, weapons, and instructions that the guards received were in an effort to deindividualize them, which effectively displaced their identity, and supported their new authoritative roles (Zimbardo et al, 1973). By day two, the roles were firmly in place in both the prisoners and the guards. After a brief rebellion by the prisoners, the guards felt even more justified in their actions and aggression towards them (Zimbardo et al, 1973). The guards became sadistic, grossly exerting their control to the point of not allowing the prisoners to use the bathroom, instead forcing them to relieve themselves in a bucket that was not removed from the cells (Zimbardo et al, 1973). As time went on, the prisoners showed signs of acute stress, changes in their mood and behaviors, and started to act in complete obedience to the guards (Zimbardo et al, 1973). The environment in the prison experiment became so dangerous that it was ended before the expected time period of completion.
There are many reasons why this experiment was ethically unsuccessful yet rich in information about behaviors and roles. I believe that there were many influences which caused the participants to delve so deeply into their assigned roles. One factor that may have helped to change the participants’ behaviors was the fact that there was a power hierarchy. Even though this hierarchy was a farce and only part of an experiment, both the guards and the prisoners integrated this perceived imbalance into their identity. The actions, behaviors and attitudes of all involved changed drastically in the six days that the experiment was active. The male participants started off psychologically and physically healthy, as tested before the experiment by Zimbardo (Zimbardo et al, 1973). They soon changed into either sadistic, aggressive guards or anxious, compliant prisoners (Zimbardo et al, 1973). Outside people, who were loosely involved in the experiment, also performed certain roles. Both a priest and lawyer were contacted near the end of the experiment and both acted as though the prisoners were incarcerated in a real jail (Zimbardo et al, 1973). Zimbardo also admitted that his role as Superintendent became very realistic to him (1973). I believe other factors may have also affected the participants: the environment, the presence of the Warden and Superintendent, and the emotional environment within the experiment. Almost every person who came into contact with this experiment changed their point of view to yield to the success of the experiment; all becoming actors in a pretend, simulated situation. It took the experiment’s premature ending to remind everyone of their own identities, and that this was supposed to be a scientific study. This experiment, while only intending to study a small microcosm of human behavior, uncovered truths that may explain our behaviors in a much broader sense.
The Stanford Prison Experiment has far reaching implications. Even though his study focused on a prison environment, the change in behaviors and attitudes due to our social roles can be seen in everyday life. In order to fully understand how our roles affect our behavior, we must first examine what comprises a role. A role is a “set of norms that define how people should behave” (Myers, 2008, p. 128). Role theory is concerned with studying “patterned and characteristic social behaviors, parts or identities that are assumed by social participants, and scripts or expectations for behavior that are understood by all and adhered to by performers” (Biddle, 1986, p.68). According to role theory, social attitudes can affect how we behave and even how we define ourselves. An interesting way to view the interactions of our various roles is to organize them into a classification system, similar to what is seen in Biology. What starts as a broad classification, such as our culture and gender, can then be reduced into smaller classifications such as local affiliations. All of these roles interact with each other and affect our daily lives. For example, I am a female in an individualistic culture. Each of those categories comes with certain expectations. Life would be vastly different for me if I were to be a female in a collectivistic society. Just one change in the hierarchy could change the subsequent roles that appear in my life. The study of roles and behaviors has been applied to many subjects. Many studies have been completed on how gender roles can have a negative effect on women’s lives. Texas A & M students Wood, Christensen, Hebl, and Rothgerber conducted a study on self concepts and role congruency (1997). Roles of males were defined by dominance and females were defined as intimate and communal (Wood et al, 1997). The research results showed signs that men had a more positive self concept when presented with situations similar to that of the normative sex role, i.e. dominance (Wood et al, 1997). Women had the similar tendency to have a positive self concept when presented with situations congruent with female roles (Wood et al, 1997). But what if a woman expressed more dominance? What if a woman’s lifestyle called for situations that required a more dominant, incongruent role norm? Eagly and Kassau postulated that women have a distinct disadvantage in leadership roles in the work environment due to expectations of their gender roles (2002). Women were perceived as less capable of being in a leadership role and evaluated negatively (Eagly and Kassau, 2002). This role congruity theory may explain many hardships experienced by females, such as the glass ceiling effect. Women may very well be hindered in their careers due to gender stereotypes. Men may also be judged for choosing career paths that are perceived as having more feminine qualities, such as nursing. Furthermore, men face criticism for staying at home with their children while their wives work, also considered incongruent with current gender roles. With more and more women working, the standards for certain roles will inevitably have to change. Gender roles are just one small example of how social standards can affect our attitudes, behaviors, and how we live. As stated before, we have a multitude of roles that we live by throughout our lives. Each role comes with a unique set of social implications and prescribed behaviors. Each role becomes subtly stamped into our identity, integrated into who we are. I believe this quote is a wonderful summation and parallel analysis to the Stanford Prison Experiment and real world issues of roles and behaviors. Zimbardo states:
In some ways, everyone will be a prisoner or a guard at some point in their life, because a guard is simply someone who limits the freedom of another person. Parents, spouses, and bosses do this all the time. And the recipients of this behavior? Well, they are the prisoners. (Slavich, 2009).
Even though this statement may seem somewhat pessimistic, there may be a grain of truth in regards to the commitment to our roles and the consequences. We make little concessions to our freedoms every day. For example, we have obligations to work “X” amount of hours per week. Maybe we limit some of our behaviors out of respect for our spouses. Overall, I don’t believe that most people can say that they get to do what they want to one hundred percent of the time. Our daily lives are dominated by rules and restrictions and that is not always a bad thing. But I believe it is important to examine closely the restrictions posed by the roles present in one’s life.
Zimbardo dared to ask the question: where does one’s identity end and one’s role begin? (1973). The two seem to be invariably intertwined, each having an effect on the other. The heavy weighing expectations of our roles seem to form parts of our identity. Are we, as people, greater than the sum of our roles? Or are we truly defined by our roles, and our roles alone? Does being a parent, or a spouse, or an employee of a certain company truly define you as a person? After reading Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect and watching many of his public speeches, I believe he would say that we have the power to use our roles for good. Also, that we are capable of transcending and breaking free from the negative, evil roles in our lives. Philip G. Zimbardo conducted one of the most important experiments in Social Psychology. The Stanford Prison Experiment gave us amazing insight into how extreme we will go in our actions and behaviors to fulfill our roles.
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