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Stanford Prison Experiment

Headed by Phillip Zimbardo, the Stanford Prison Experiment was designed with the aim of investigating how readily people would behave and react to the roles given to them within a simulated prison. The experiment showed that the social expectations that people have of specific social situations can direct and strongly influence behaviour. The concepts evident in the Stanford Prison Experiment include social influence, and within that, conformity.

The experiment also greatly showed how external attribution can overpower internal attribution of individuals; in this case, the participants behaved in ways extreme as compared to how they would usually behaved as individuals.

In one way or another, these concepts are very closely linked and sometimes work hand in hand. The concept of social influence revolves around the notion that one’s personal thoughts, emotions, and beliefs are affected by the happenings around them, which can take place in the form of social norms and conformity.

Conformity is the change in behaviour to go along with a group’s beliefs or behaviour (Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004) due to the real or imagined influence of others (Kiesler & Kiesler, 1969).

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In social circumstances, people are inclined to worry about rejection, so they reduce the worry by copying the actions of those around them (Giles & Oxford, 1970). Of social influence, three kinds of attitude were identified: compliance, identification, and internalisation (Kelman, 1958).

Obedience to authority is also a form of social influence where an individual acts in response to a direct order from another individual who is a figure of authority.

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Obedience involves an order of power in which the lower ranking individual would be obliged to obey the high ranker individual, whereas conformity happens through social pressures such as the norms of the majority (McLeod, 2007) People tend to use the concept of attribution to explain behavioural change. There are two types of attribution: external and internal.

External attribution is believed to be caused by situational inducements, whereas in contrast, internal attribution would steer more towards the operation of an individual’s personality, morals, and even genes (American Psychological Association, 2004). The Stanford Prison Experiment exerts that situational factors do matter. Content In the Stanford Prison experiment, participants were randomly assigned to their roles, either as a prison guard or a prisoner. Within a short time span, the two groups were conforming greatly to their roles. In one instance, guards made the prisoners chant “Prisoner 819 did a bad thing! out loud as a group in an effort to blame and breakdown a prisoner for his disobedience.

The fact that the prisoners did as they were told was due to the social norm among the prisoners: they were supposed to do as they were told or else they were punished as a group. Social norms are identified to be implicit or explicit rules for acceptable behaviour, values, and beliefs within the group (Deutsch & Gerard, 1955; Miller & Prentice, 1996). As such, there are expectations and standards of how to behave for individuals in a group to uphold. Individuals who choose to behave differently and not conform are labelled as deviants.

As a result of their non-conforming behaviours, deviants can be derided, ignored, or even face rejection from their group (Miller & Anderson, 1979; Kruglanski & Webster, 1991). This is seen when the rest of the prisoners repeatly chant “Prisoner 819 did a bad thing! ”; Prisoner 819 was cast out from the group. As a group, the rest of the prisoners chose to accept the tyranny of the guards rather than to risk further unnecessary harassment from the prison guards (Zimbardo, 2007). Individuals conform for normative reasons, doing what others are doing, because they do not want to attraction attention or face oppression from others.

This is known as normative social influence, and it results in “public compliance with the group norms but not necessarily in private acceptance of the group’s beliefs” (Nail, MacDonald, & Levy, 2000; Cialdini, Kallgren, & Reno, 1991). In this case, the ‘public compliance’ would stem from the prisoners’ reaction to the guards’ behaviour. Although the prisoners conform to the standard of behaviour expected from them, they do not agree with that same set of beliefs, as individuals (Zimbardo, 2007). With two different groups in the same setting (prisoners vs. uards), there was the inevitable presence of ingroup-outgroup bias, stemming from the conflict between the two groups. As a result, the intergroup conflict increased intragroup cohesiveness as the social identity among the respective groups grew stronger. Not only did this give rise to group attribution error, it also developed double standard thinking and moral exclusion amongst the groups (Forsyth, 2006), particularly the guards. Each group rationalized their own actions and beliefs to be fair, and condemned the actions of the other group (Forsyth, 2006).

The outgroup also got dehumanized and this resulted in extremely negative treatment (to a certain extent, even inhumane) by the ingroup towards the outgroup (Forsyth, 2006). This is seen when the guards abused the prisoners simply because of their higher status, even in one scenario stepping on a prisoner’s back while he was doing push-ups (Zimbardo, 2007). The guards simply rationalised their actions as a necessary measure to ensure that the prisoners knew who possessed authority in the prison. The concept of attribution of situational factors to behavioural change was one of the most prominent finds in the Stanford Prison experiment.

This concept is also closely compared to the Abu Ghraib POW Prison abuse incidents, in which the abuse of prisoners by guards resulted in numerous injuries and even death. In the case of the Stanford Prison Experiment as well as in the Abu Ghraib POW prison, it was found that relatively nice people were soon turned into sadistic thugs. Strangely, the participants of the Stanford Prison experiment checked out normally on the pre-experimental tests, and the guards of the Abu Ghraib prison who were involved in the abuse of prisoners had exemplary military records from previous tours of military duties.

However, the situation factors that they faced in the prison environment led them to treat the prisoners in extremely perverse and humiliating ways. After ending the experiment, Zimbardo (2007) concluded that the “pathologies were elicited by the set of situational forces constantly impinging upon them” and then theorised The Lucifer Effect, noting how continuous exposure to detrimental conditions could lead individuals to turn evil. The situational perspective has also been supported by many other infamous experiments, including the Milgram experiment of 1961.

A few situational factors have been identified to have caused the guards to behave in such disturbing ways: laissez-faire leadership (Bass & Avolio, 1994), psychological stressors such as boredom and danger, and ambiguous rules and regulations within the premises. Zimbardo (2007) also proposed that most experts of human behaviour tend to overdepend on the dispositional traits of individuals to explain abnormal behaviour and disregard situational factors, and thus were commiting the fundamental attribution error. Asian Context – Conformity

The concept of conformity is rather prominent in Asian culture, especially in Japan. Being influenced not only in social interactions but also by the degree of perceived similarity among individuals (Abrams, Wetherell, Cochrane, Hogg, & Turner, 1990). In the collectivist society of Japan, group needs are placed in much higher importance as compared to the needs of the individual. Non-conforming behaviours are treated with animosity, and this is clearly reflected in the Japanese phrase “The nail that sticks out is hammered down. For example, the Japanese pride themselves in the belief that the sensei, or teacher, knows best and students ought to listen and not question. Students who participate with enthusiasm are often viewed as disruptive, and might even possibly receive lower grades as compared to their other peers (Brightman, 2006). However, Japanese individuals undergoing Asch tests on conformity were found tohave surprising high non-conforming levels with 76% of them giving correct responses.

One possible explaination for this phenomenon is that the average Japanese individual only feels obliged to conform within groups that they feel special allegiance with (Mann, 1980). Conclusion The Stanford Prison Experiment has allowed us to further understand how individuals will behave due to the social influence around them by conforming, as well as behaving with respect to the environmental factors and conditions around them.

Although research might support the concepts of conformity and situational attribution to be present across the spread of universal and Asian context, further relative studies ought to be conducted in more Asian countries to confirm that fact. This is because most people would tend to generalise behaviours based on the face value of that particular culture, but only an in-depth analysis, such as the Asch test that was conducted in Japan, would be able to debunk such myths.

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Stanford Prison Experiment. (2016, Oct 29). Retrieved from

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