Outline and evaluate research into conformity to social roles

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The Stanford prison experiment (Zimbardo, 1973)


In 1960s America there were many concerns about the treatment of prisoners by prison guards. Many complaints were made by prisoners of violent and brutal attacks by the guards that were meant to be protecting and caring for them. Zimbardo wanted to find out exactly what made prison guards behave in this way, and in particular was it the situation they found themselves in (referred to as situational factors) or the personalities of the guards (referred to as dispositional factors). In other words, did the guards behave violently because the rigid power-based social structure within the prison made them behave that way (situational), or because they had aggressive and sadistic personalities that led them to choose to become prison guards (dispositional)?

Zimbardo aimed to investigate the difference between situational and dispositional factors in social roles by creating a mock prison in the basement of Stanford University. He recruited 12 participants to play the role of prison guards and 12 to play the role of prisoners from a pool of 75 male volunteers. All participants were screened for any psychological disorders, such as mental illness and drug taking, and only theses without any indications of instability or aggressive personalities were selected. 

The prison had 16 rules which prisoners were expected to obey and the guards were expected to enforce, such as eating meals at specific times of day, needing to ask permission to write letters, or needing to ask permission to use the toilet. The guards were given a uniform that consisted of a shirt and mirrored sunglasses. At the start of the experiment, in order to make the prison appear as realistic as possible, the prisoners were arrested at their homes and taken to the prison where they were stripped, searched, deloused and given prison uniforms to wear. 

The intention was to observe and film prison life for a period of 14 days, however what went on in the prison was so brutal and shocking that the experiment had to be terminated after just 6 days. Almost from the beginning the prisoners reacted to the way the guards were treating them by ripping their clothes…

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