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The psychology of tyranny

by Kurt Kleiner Jun 16 / 16
The psychology of tyranny
Photo: Courtesy of Alexander Haslam

In December 2001, 15 men volunteered to participate in social science experiment.

When they turned up, they discovered that they were to play the roles of guards and prisoners in a study designed to explore the psychology of tyranny. Over the course of the experiment, guards attempted to assert their power, prisoners revolted and a communal government was instituted and overthrown – all within eight days.  

The study made for good television and was broadcast in a four-part documentary by the BBC in early 2002. But the experiment was also a serious piece of social science research, conducted by Senior Fellow Alexander Haslam (University of Queensland) and his colleague Stephen Reicher (University of St. Andrews). The BBC study re-examined the lessons of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971, in which students designated as guards quickly became abusive. The experiment seemed to show that normal people can easily adopt a role that leads to sadistic behaviour.   

But the BBC experiment suggested there was more to it than just individual roles. Instead, identifying with a group – social identity – made all the difference. Prisoners built group solidarity, while guards were uncomfortable with their roles, and within a few days the prisoners rebelled and instituted an egalitarian order. However, the new system lasted only two days in the face of opposition from some of the original rebels. By the time the experiment ended, the discouraged communal government was ready to accept self-proclaimed ‘new guards’ who were far more authoritarian than their predecessors.   

The researchers concluded that tyranny is most likely to thrive when a history of group failure makes people receptive to extreme solutions, and where there is a leadership team that offers them. The researchers noted that this analysis is consistent with accounts of the rise of Fascism in post-Weimar Germany.   

They argue that evil does not flourish because perpetrators do not know what they are doing. Instead it thrives because they know full well what they are doing, and believe it to be right.