Conformity to social roles

Social roles

Most people hold different positions in society and most people hold several at the same time (brother, sister, chef, police officer etc).

Social roles are the behavours and expectations that may come with these positions.

The expectations we have are held by society. When we accept a role, we internalise these expectations to shape our behavours. 

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Zimbardo (1973) Studied conformity to social roles


  • Male students recruited to act as prisoners or guards in a mock prison.
  • Randomly given the roles, their behaviour was observed.
  • Prisoners were 'arrested' during the day, the prisoners given uniforms and numbers.
  • Guards wore mirrored sunglasses and uniform.


  • Initially, guards tried to assert their authority and prisoners tried to resist by sticking together.
  • Prisoners became more passive and obedient and guards got nastier.
  • Experiment abandoned early as 2 prisoners went crazy and the prisoners were broken.


  • Guards and prisoners adopted their social roles quickly. Zimbardo says that this shows that our social role can influence behaviour - seeimingly well balanced people became unpleasant and unbalanced once they became guards.
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Zimbardo (1973)


  • Controlled observation so good control of variables. 
  • Artificial situations - lacks ecological validity and can't be generalised
  • Ethics were bad
  • Zimbardo also got personally involved - observer bias
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Real world application

No one has replicated Zimbardo's experiment exactly because of it's ethical issues. However there have been similar studies:

  • Orlando (1973) set up a mock psych ward in a hospital for 3 day.
  • 29 staff volunteered to be patients and 22 staff were to carry on as normal.
  • Patients started behaving lie real patients of the hospital and were showing signs of depression, withdrawal and some tried to escape the ward.
  • After the study the patients said that they felt frustrated, anxious & despairing. 
  • Some felt that they'd lost their identity. 

This study led to more of an effort to respect the patient, and improved the relationship and cooperation between them

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The development of Zimbardo's ideas

  • In WW2 during the Holocaust the Nazi's killed aroung 6 million Jews.
  • Some psychologists thought that the soldiers were eveil but others thought that they were filling a social role.
  • Zimbardo's (1973) study showed that people fit into their social role, even if it was randomly assigned.
  • It seemed that the participant's behaviour was situational, rather than dispositional.
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Reicher and Haslam (2006) - BBC Prison Study


  • Controlled observation in a mock prison, filmed for TV
  • 15 male volunteers
  • Randomly assigned guards or prisoners (5 guards, 10 prisoners)
  • They had daily tests to measure levels of depression, compliance with rules and stress.
  • Prisoners knew that one of them would randomly become a guard after 3 days.
  • Indipendent ethics comunity had the power to stop the experiment.
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Reicher and Haslam (2006) - BBC Prison Study


  • Guards failed to form a united group and identify with their role.
  • Didn't always exercise their control over the prisoners because they said they felt uncomfortable doing so. 
  • Once one of the prisoners was promoted the prisoners then became united. 
  • On day 6 the prisoners rebelled and the participants decided to live in a democracy, this didn't work due to rising tensions between the prisoners and guards. 
  • Study was ended early after advice to do so from the ethics community.
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Reicher and Haslam (2006) - BBC Prison Study


Participants didn't fit into their expected social roles, suggesting that these roles are flexible.

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Reicher and Haslam (2006) - BBC Prison Study


  • Contrasts to Zimbardo's study as the prisoners were strong and the guards were weak. 
  • Some of the study is said to be staged because it was filmed for TV.
  • Artificial situation - low ecological validity - results cannot be generalised.
  • Ethics were good - Were not decieved so were able to gove informed consent, debriefed and also had an ethics committee.
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