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Human development strongly depends on society as well as the development of society depends on the person as a society and particular groups consist of individuals. The problem of the influence of social norms on human behavior is rather relevant and always is under the interest of psychology. This paper is aimed at revealing the notion of the group conformity through such examples as the Stanford county prison experiment and Solomon Asch’s experiment resulting in a concise analysis of the chosen topic.
First of all, it seems appropriate to begin with the definition of group conformity. According to Haynes and Fopiano (2012), “conformity to group norms is indicative of commitment and dedication to the group’s process and progress”. In other words, group conformity is the tendency to change views and positions according to those that prevail in a given society or a group. Conformal behavior is the behavior when a person follows expectations of others ignoring his own opinion, goals, and interests. To understand the topic better, it is important to consider several examples. Precisely speaking, the paper investigates peculiarities of the Stanford county prison experiment and Solomon Asch’s experiment.
Stanford County Prison Experiment
Professor Philip Zimbardo initiated an ambitious experiment on August 14, 1971, where several young men had to try on the role of guards and prisoners in jail artificially recreated at the Stanford University. The experiment is a psychological study of human responses to freedom restriction in conditions of prison life and the impact of the imposed social role on behavior. Initially, guards and prisoners have no difference from each other and were characterized as normal people. Experimenters observed their behavior, cognitive, and emotional reactions, and the emerging system of relationships.
They organized the experimental prison, where prisoners were placed in barred cells that created a psychological feeling of confinement for all participants of the experiment. The purpose of the experiment was not just to repeat the US prison, but to establish its functional similarity (Zimbardo, 2011). Due to ethical and moral reasons, Zimbardo could not use harsh physical punishment, carry out the massacre, and copy some other specific aspects of prison life. However, they created such conditions that caused a sense of helplessness, suppression, and frustration as well as high and low social statuses.
Nevertheless, the experiment quickly got out of control. Guards behaved aggressively and mocked at prisoners, and, by the end, the latter showed rigorous emotional disturbance. If the first day went in a quiet atmosphere, the second day brought a rebellion. Guards voluntarily went to overtime and suppressed the rebellion without guidance from researchers attacking prisoners with fire extinguishers. After this incident, guards tried to divide prisoners and set them against each other distinguishing good and bad ones. These measures have had a significant effect, and further large-scale disturbances occurred. The prison became dirty and gloomy. The right to wash was a privilege that could easily be denied. Guards forced some of “bad” prisoners to clean toilets. It was a tactic similar to that used in US prisons.
Afterward, prisoners were offered parole to get out of jail if they refuse from payment, the majority agreed to this. Zimbardo uses this fact to show how much participants got used to the experimental conditions. However, they were rejected to go out, and none left the experiment.
Results of the Experiment
The consequences of the experiment are mind-blowing. One of the participants detected a psychosomatic exanthema on his body when he understood that his appeal to withdraw parole was rejected. Confused thinking and tears have become commonplace for prisoners. Two of them have experienced such a strong shock that they were taken from the experiment. The prisoner, who came to replace, was horrified by the treatment of guards and declared a hunger-strike. He spent three hours in a closet for solitary detention.
It is a surprising fact that 90 percents of all conversations between inmates were about prison (Pastin, 2013). Despite there were completely different and interesting people, they did not know anything about each other for the whole experiment. While they could discuss their plans for the future or talk about the past, in a word, at the only time that they might run away and break away from reality they spoke only about food, guards, the behavior of other prisoners, and other prison issues. In other words, there was no discontinuity in their self-perception as prisoners. Moreover, they began to absorb negative views of guards and became to treat themselves as negative people (Zimbardo, 2011). By the end of the experiment, prisoners stopped resisting the pressure even internally and we’re fully confident that guards are right.
After the end of the experiment, their emotional level has bounced back, and no one reported any negative consequences of the experiment. Two of the prisoners revised their career plans and became a lawyer of prisoners’ affairs and a prison psychologist. Moreover, organizers themselves have become hostages of the experiment. Especially Zimbardo, who was interested in guards’ behavior so much that has forgotten about human morality to some extent. He did not want to finish the experiment. Only his girlfriend opened his eyes.
The main conclusion of the study is that it is impossible to predict human behavior based on personal data as group conformity defines a particular situation’s consequences. The experiment demonstrates the sensitivity and obedience of people when there is a justifying ideology supported by society or group (Pastin, 2013). Since guards were given the preference of supremacy, they start to act as would never do in everyday life. Prisoners fell into depression and became passive in a simulated situation. It confirms the fact that group conformity plays an important part in human behavior.
Despite its significance, the experiment has some flaws need to be mentioned. The Stanford prison experiment is often mentioned as an immoral investigation. It cannot be repeated today because it does not meet plenty of modern ethical standards. It also has some lack of objectivity as all participants were white men of the middle class, and results may not apply to all segments of the population.
One more considerable experiment was conducted by Asch. Participants of Asch’s experiment were convinced that they take part in the visual experiment, not psychological. They were divided into groups of 2-7 people. One person in the group was the test, and others were assistants of Asch. The first assistant answered all questions correctly as well as the testee, but then they began to assert wrong answers unanimously.
The experiment demonstrated the power of the impact of socio-psychological mechanisms showing how strong the influence of group conformity is (Bernstein, 2011). In this simple experiment, participants were completely aware of the mistakes of other people but still wanted to stick to the general opinion.
After finishing the experiment, participants were asked why they succumbed to the influence of the group while the right answer was obvious. Most of the participants said that they were afraid of ridicule from the group and did not want to risk. A few participants suggested that they were wrong. Such responses are pushing to the conclusion that the pursuit of the respective groups could be affected by such psychological human factors as the desire to fit into the team confidence or that other people are smarter and more knowledgeable. Asch claimed that “The individual comes to experience a world that he shares with others. He perceives that the surroundings include him as well as others and that he is in the same relation to the surroundings as others” (Smith & Haslam, 2012, p. 85). Given the level of imitation, this correspondence could be much stronger than in real life, where incentives are much more varied and mixed.
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Critics note that such an experiment in the laboratory cannot be applied to real-life situations. Nevertheless, the majority of social psychologists are unanimous in the fact that although the real situation is not as simple and clear as in the laboratory experiment, probably, the real societal pressure is more than the results of the experiment showed.
In conclusion, the Stanford Prison Experiment and Asch’s Experiment remains important studies in the field of group conformity. They contribute to the investigation of group conformity and provide interesting and useful real-life experiments that reflect human nature.
Bernstein, D. A. (2011). Essentials of psychology (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.
Haynes, N. M., & Fopiano, J. E. (2012). Group dynamics: Basics and pragmatics for practitioners. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
Pastin, M. (2013). Make an ethical difference: Tools for better action. San Francisco, CA: Berret-Koehler.
Smith, J. R., & Haslam, S. A. (2012). Social psychology: Revisiting the classic studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
Zimbardo, P. G. (2011). The Lucifer effect: How good people turn evil. London, England: Rider.