Psychology experiments: roles, power and behaviour

Way back in the day (ok, the 1960s & 70s) researchers in psychology were allowed to do some really crazy things with their subjects. Nowadays – and based on some of those past experiments –  there are some pretty strict ethical rules for what you’re allowed to use ‘human participants’ for in experiments.  I know that when I was in university, we had to participate in a few experiments as part of our coursework. For example, I remember doing one that involved putting my hand in cold water until it hurt – not too dramatic. Never figured out what that was measuring – but now I’m dying to know!

In some of my research, I’ve come across some really shocking, and super interesting experiments so I thought I’d share some of my favourites.   For this post, I’ll share one that I think is particularly relevant  to identity.

The stanford prison experiments.

This experiment, conducted in 1971 by Zimbardo (a Stanford Psychology professor) took undergraduate students, and assigned them to ‘roles’. These roles were that of Prisoner, and Prison Guard. And yes, the participants had to ‘live’ in a fake-prison, which was the basement of a building at Stanford. It’s shocking how these roles influence the total person – from behaviour, to self views and self-esteem, to their view of others. Just being assigned to the role of Prison Guard gave some individuals, after a very short time, an insane sense of power, while the Prisoners assumed a feeling of helplessness and victimization.  It really goes to show how the roles we take on can –  unconsciously even – greatly influence our sense of self, our perceptions of others, and the world around us.  Power, sometimes given to us by a role  (ie. boss in the organization), or even by “birthright” in some countries, can lead to some pretty nasty behaviors in some people.    Here are the videos in series… from youtube.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Still gives me the shivers.


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4 Responses to Psychology experiments: roles, power and behaviour

  1. Karin Maag says:

    Hi Aly,
    It was very interesting to read your posts. As you may be know I studied Psychology and am always curious to read material in this area. Regarding your above post: there is actually a German movie about this experiment. It’s called ‘Das Experiment’ and they might have translated it into English as well. It’s worth watching it! But the shiver will not go away..
    Cheers and take care,

    • alymeister says:

      Thanks for the tip and the comment Karin! I’m going to watch the movie (with subtitles though!) – I’ve heard it’s good. Definitely creepy stuff – there are a lot more experiments I find interesting too around the same types of topics, I’ll post them next!

  2. James says:

    Steven Pinker references that experiment in that book the blank slate.

    I think his premise was that once we can dehumanize another human Ie by taking away their name, giving them numbers, engage in desensitizing humour at their expense, etc, we can basically treat another person the same way we could treat a bug.

    Its a mechanisim that allows someone to hug their kids in the morning, listen to Beethoven while getting ready and then go to work at a auschwitz.

    The same device probably made it alot easier for us to protect ourselves and attack others to ensure our survival in our prehistory days.

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