Conformity To Social Roles – Zimbardo’s Prison Study
Zimbardo’s prison study was a key example of conformity to social roles taking place through identification. Social roles such as a police officer, doctor or teacher all carry with them “expected” behaviours from the role itself but also how people would be expected to respond to them. His original aim was to understand why brutal and dehumanising behaviour occurred in prisons. Zimbardo was testing two possible explanations:
- The dispositional hypothesis which suggested it was due to the guards and prisoners being “bad seeds” with sadistic, aggressive tendencies.
- Or whether it was due to the Situational hypothesis which suggested the behaviour was due to the prison setting itself and the social roles imposed which supported the behaviour.
You can download the full model essay for conformity to social roles as investigated by Zimbardo by downloading the ebook on the right.
Zimbardo’s Prison Study
- Zimbardo recruited 75 male university students who responded to a newspaper advert which asked for volunteers in a study investigating prison life. The study paid $15 per day. The basement of Stanford university was converted into a mock prison and the study was scheduled to last 2 weeks.
- 21 students assessed as being mentally and physically stable with no criminal tendencies were chosen with 11 playing prisoners and 10 given the role of guards through random allocation.
- The “prisoners” were arrested by real police officers at home and deloused, given a prison uniform and all designated an ID number. They were all referred to by their numbers only and were also chained around one ankle.
- Guards wore khaki uniforms, reflective sunglasses (preventing eye contact) and issued handcuffs, truncheons and keys.
- The prisoners were allowed certain rights such as 3 meals per day and 3 supervised visits to the toilet. They were also allowed to be visited twice per week.
- Each cell was allocated 3 prisoners from a total 9.
Prisoners and guards settled into their roles with the guards becoming more abusive and tyrannical. Dehumanisation was apparent with guards taunting prisoners and waking them at night to carry out demeaning jobs such as cleaning toilets with their bare hands. Some guards even volunteered for extra hours without pay.
Prisoners became submissive and did not question the guards behaviours with some even siding with the guards against other prisoners who rebelled. Prisoners began referring to one another by their prison ID’s instead of their actual names and de- individuation was apparent.
5 prisoners were released early due to them displaying extreme behaviours such as crying, anxiety and rage. The study was stopped after only 6 days after it became clear the significant harm that was being caused by the aggressive behaviour of the guards and the submissive behaviour of the prisoners.