Social Study In Detail - Reicher and Haslam (2006)

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Rethinking The Psychology Of Tyranny - The BBC Prison Study


S. Reicher & S.A. Haslam


To investigate how two groups with unequal status and power behave towards each other. Specifically to test the hypotheses that a dominant group will quickly display a strong group identity, but that a subordinate group will only develop a strong identity and act against the the dominant group once boundaries between the groups become impermeable and the power inequality appears unfair and changeable.


15 male participants were selected from 332 applicants. They were assessed by clinical psychologists, police- checked and had their good character testified by referees.


Five of the 15 participants were randomly selected to be the guards and the remaining ten were given the roles of prisoners. They lived in a prison environment for ten days. Guards were given routines and rules to enforce and they had more comfortable accommodation and better facilities than the prisoners. They were also told that the guards had been selected for this role because they were more trustworthy and the prisoners were told that one of them would be promoted on day three. This created a condition of high group permeability and high fairness. After day three, the prisoners were told there were to be no more promotions, creating a condition of low permeability. Three days later they were told that in fact there was no difference of characteristics between the guards and prisoners. This created a condition of low fairness. Each morning, all participants rated their identification with their own group and with the other group.

Data was gathered using video and tape recordings, as well as tests being carried out to investigate issues such as depression, compliance with rules and authoritarianism. Cortisol (stress hormone…


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