Social psychology examines how the personality, attitudes, motivations and actions of individuals are influenced by social groups. Researchers in the field have always been interested in the effects that social and environmental elements have on individuals’ perceptions and behavior.
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One of the most common research studies in social psychology is that conducted by Zimbardo, Haney, and Banks in the summer of 1971. This study is commonly referred to as the “Stanford Prison Experiment” or the Zimbardo experiment. The Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 by Zimbardo proved that social context has a bigger impact on individual behavior than individual characteristics.
The Stanford Prison Experiment involved a total of twenty-four male subjects who were selected to participate in the study from a sample of seventy-five male volunteers. The participants were selected based on their psychological stability determined by a series of tests. Twelve of the participants were assigned to the role of prison guards while the remaining twelve were assigned to the role of prison inmates.
The mock prison was at the basement of the psychology center of Stanford University. Guarantee was given to the prisoners that even though some of their fundamental human rights would be violated, they would not be physically abused. However, they were not informed of what to expect. The guards on the other hand were informed about administrative processes but no training for their role was offered to them. They were however prohibited from physically abusing the inmates (Brady and Logsdon 705).
On the first day of the experiment, the prisoners were apprehended and donned in prison attire while the guards were donned in khaki uniforms and other attire that symbolized power and authority. The reason for this was to accurately simulate a real prison situation. What followed next was disturbing and something that the researchers did not expect.
Within a span of one and a half days, the guards had taken full control over the prisoners and were aggressive towards them. In some instances, the guards physically abused the prisoners. In short, the guards undoubtedly enjoyed the exercise of power and often volunteered to extend their shifts. The Stanford Prison Experiment ended prematurely on the sixth day rather than the initial two weeks planned for it. This was much to the disappointment of the guards and elation of the prisoners.
The researchers had to bring the experiment to a close because of the negative psychological effects it had on the prisoners. Indeed, several prisoners had to be sent home on the first and second day of the experiment because of severe psychological disturbances (Brady and Logsdon 706).
Despite the premature end of the experiment, what took place in those six days of the experiment was enough for the researchers to make a valuable conclusion. The researchers concluded that the degree to which average people quickly conform to roles assigned to them on the basis of differences in power supports the situational hypothesis.
This is the hypothesis that social context has a bigger impact on individual behavior than individual characteristics. The participants had taken their roles so seriously that they failed to differentiate between their selves and their roles. The participants who had been assigned to the role of inmates had indeed become inmates while those who had been assigned to the role of guards had indeed become guards and acted so. There was no line between reality and role playing (Brady and Logsdon 706).
Brady, Neil, and Jeanne Logsdon. “Zimbardo’s ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’ and the relevance O.” Journal of Business Ethics 7.9 (1988): 703-710.