Penitentiary.
IMAGE: Everett Collection

Two famous experiments dominated the field of social psychology in the latter half of the 20th century: Stanley Milgram’s evaluation of human obedience and Philip Zimbardo’s simulated prison environment (the Stanford Prison Experiment). Both experiments sought to illuminate humanity’s tendency to conform to authority. Their results strongly suggested that people unthinkingly follow prescribed roles, no matter how oppressive, leaving Milgram and Zimbardo to conclude that conformity is deeply rooted in human nature.

But a new paper co-authored by Fellow Alex Haslam (University of Queensland) titled ‘Contesting the “Nature” of Conformity: What Milgram and Zimbardo’s Studies Really Show,’ challenges these long accepted views. Drawing from an emerging body of empirical work, Dr. Haslam and his colleagues set out to show that the psychology of conformity is an active and creative process, which is contingent upon an individual identifying with the views of a given group and believing that those views are right. To this end, they re-examined both the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments.

In Milgram’s original study, participants were told they were part of a scientific analysis of memory. Cast in the role of a “teacher,” participants were asked to administer shocks of increasing magnitude to a “learner” when he failed to recall the correct answer. To Milgram’s surprise, more than half of the participants administered the maximum voltage possible when encouraged.

But evidence from Milgram’s debriefing with the participants post-experiment actually suggests that the participants identified more with the scientific enterprise than with the experiment itself. Haslam concludes that this is the real cause of their willingness to administer shocks. Rather than thoughtless conformity, people consciously choose actions they can justify by ends that they perceive to be right.

In the Stanford Prison Experiment, a group of average college men were randomly assigned to be guards or prisoners in a simulated prison environment. Both prisoners and guards internalized their roles to such an extent that the experiment had to be terminated after only six days due to unethical treatment of the prisoners by the guards.

To better understand the outcome of this classic experiment, Dr. Haslam conducted his own study that replicated aspects of the Stanford Prison Experiment in what was called the BBC Prison Study. Much like the Stanford experiment, participants were randomly assigned to be guards or prisoners in a simulated prison environment. However, unlike the earlier experiment, no directions were given to the participants about how to behave, and under these circumstances many individual participants did not conform to their assigned roles. Only when participants identified with a group identity did they behave in the interests of the group.

“This area of research suggests that it is a mistake to see evil as a slippery slope that people descend without thought or care,” reflects Dr. Haslam. “Tyrannies cannot succeed without hard work and conviction on the part of those who enact them.   Understanding how leaders cultivate such identification is therefore critical, as is the process of understanding how the same processes of identification can also be a basis for resistance.”

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