Social Psychology Studies: Explaining Irrational Term Paper

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However, some have questioned whether these results would have been the same if the groups of people had known one another. In the experiment, the boys were not acquainted with one another prior to the experiment. Believing that such a scenario is too artificial to make it generalizable to the population at large, Tyerman and Spencer conducted a similar experiment, but used an existing Scout troop, where the boys knew one another, as the source of the study population (Tyerman & Spencer, 1983, p.519, para.5). Moreover, the divisions in the study were natural divisions. "The subjects had been accustomed to functioning within their four distinct patrol groups at previous camps, meetings and other activities over a long period. At camp, the seven-boy patrol units, although in close proximity, have separate patrol sites in which they cook, eat, and sleep…Again, as in the Sherifs' studies, intergroup competition is very much an institutionalized feature of the scout camp, with, here, daily marks being awarded for efficiency and camping standards, as well as for the organized activities" (Tyerman & Spencer, 1983, p.520, para.3). What they found was that in groups where people knew the members of the out-groups, the hostility level never rose to the levels it did in the groups where the boys were not acquainted prior to the experiments (Tyerman & Spencer, 1983, p. 522, para.2). This suggests that group membership is not defined by membership in a single group, but by overlapping series of group membership.

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The Stanford Prison Experiment

TOPIC: Term Paper on Social Psychology Studies: Explaining Irrational Assignment

Arguably one of the most troubling of all social psychology experiments, the Stanford Prison Experiment helped answer the unanswerable: why those in power abuse those not in power. In this experiment, the researchers divided subjects into two groups: guards and prisoners and set up a simulated prison in a basement at Stanford. Within a day, the prisoners were rebelling against the guards, and the guards were using every bit of power they had to control the prison population. Even the experimenters became engrossed in their roles as prison administrators.

It is important to realize that the experimenters took great steps to arrange as realistic a prison environment as they could. For example, the guards were allowed to select uniforms, which would have them stand out from the prisoners. They were also allowed to set-up rules for how their prison would run; they were given power and authority before ever being introduced to the prisoners. In contrast, the prisoners were deprived of power. "The would-be prisoners were told to wait at home or at the address they provided us, and we would contact them on Sunday" (Zimbardo et al., 2000, p. 6, para.3). However, they were not contacted in a traditional way; instead, the investigators had arranged from them to be arrested by the Palo Alto police department. "After the surprise arrest by the police, they were brought to our simulated prison environment, where they underwent a degradation ceremony as part of the initiation into their new role" (Zimbardo et al., 2000, p. 6, para.3). The prisoners were further dehumanized; their clothes were taken and they were given smocks, forced to wear ankle chains, flip-flops rather than shoes, and could not wear underwear (Zimbardo et al., 2000, p. 6, para.3). Therefore, simply by appearance, this group of college-age boys who had been indistinguishable from one another when selected for their groups could identify as groups through visual cues immediately after the beginning of the study.

The prison guards were prohibited from using physical violence against the inmates, but they tortured them anyway, forcing them to go naked, do pushups, depriving them of sleep, and having them engage in simulated sexual activities with one another (Zimbardo, 2007, p. 2-3). At the time, the experiment was a failure; the prison scenario became so chaotic that another psychologist brought the experiment to a halt after 6 days, rather than allowing it to run for the planned 14 days. However, what it did reveal is that people will adapt to the social roles given to them, in positive and negative ways. Moreover, the study really challenged the prevailing attitudes about the violence in prison conditions at that time, which were based on a dispositional hypothesis that the conditions were the result of violent or sadistic people self-selecting jobs as prison guards and prisoners being a group that already fails to conform to social norms (Haney et al., 1973, p.70-71, para. 3/1).

The other thing it reveals is that even those who understand that they are investigating power and control are not necessarily immune from that impact. In a 2007 article, Philip Zimbardo looked back on the experiment he created, and reflected on the changes it created, not only in the students who were participants, but also in the researchers. He was not even aware of the changes in himself until a fellow professor, whom he was dating, responded in horror when she saw what was occurring in the "prison." According to Zimbardo, "Christina made evident in that one statement that human beings were suffering, not prisoners, not experimental subjects, not paid volunteers. And further, I was the one who was personally responsible for the horrors she had witnessed" (Zimbardo, 2007, p. 3, para.5). As an experimenter, he had insulated himself from the responsibility for the subjects' behavior, because he was not directing them to do any of the behavior. However, as he recognized their sadism, her comments became a mirror for his own willingness to tolerate such behavior.

Stanley Milgram's Obedience Experiment

Competing with the Stanford Prison Experiment for the most insightful look into human darkness is Stanley Milgram's obedience experiment. The experiment itself was basic; have psychology students believe that they are issuing shocks to a fellow student as punishment for failing to answer questions correctly, and see where the students stop following instructions and refuse to administer the shocks. The results defied expectations. Though the participants were not actually administering shocks to the learners in the experiment, they believed they were doing so; the learners engaged in responses to the "shocks" which were audible to the participants. These responses included screams, pleading, and then silence. However, the majority of the participants continued to escalate shock levels. That does not mean that they were comfortable doing so; the vast majority of people not only initially resisted, but continued to resist throughout the experiment. However, when told by the experimenter to continue administering shocks to the learner, most did so. This study has been used to explain obedience to authority, and why otherwise good people would engage in atrocious behaviors.

Milgram devised his experiment to help understand if the drive for obedience was something ingrained in all human beings. What he seemed to understand was that large-scale atrocities simply could not be committed without involvement by multiple people. Of course, for Milgram, studying in the early 1960s, the most recent large-scale atrocity was the Holocaust. As he points out, "It has been reliably established that from 1933-45 millions of innocent persons were systematically slaughtered on command. Gas chambers were built, death camps were guarded, daily quotas of corpses were produced with the same efficiency as the manufacture of appliances. These inhumane policies may have originated in the mind of a single person, but they could only be carried out on a massive scale if a very large number of persons obeyed orders" (Milgram, 1963, p. 371, para.1). Moreover, Milgram seemed to understand that these people were not necessarily all evil people. Instead, observing post-World War II Germany and the aftermath of the Holocaust, it seemed that these people were simply inclined to follow orders, which made Milgram want to see what percentage of people would engage in behavior that they believed would harm another human being simply because an authority figure instructed them to do so.

One of the criticisms of Milgram's experiments is that they were cruel to the study participants, many of whom suffered extreme stress during the experimental phase, and who may have had a difficult time reconciling their behavior in the context of the study with their perceptions of self outside of the study. Diana Baumrind is one of the people who believed that the stress resulting from the experiment was somehow inhumane. However, what she ignores, which Milgram points out, is that the subjects did not behave as the researchers thought they would. As a result, "The extreme tension induced in some subjects was unexpected. Before conducting the experiment, the procedures were discussed with many colleagues, and none anticipated the reactions that subsequently took place" (Milgram, 1964, p. 848, para. 7). Milgram did not expect to see the high level of obedience to authority that he saw, and, therefore, had no reason to believe that the subjects would experience the clearly high levels of stress exhibited during the study.

Zimbardo examined Milgram's obedience studies and came to three conclusions. First, he determined that "obedience to authority requires each of us to first participate in the myth-making process of… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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Social Psychology Studies: Explaining Irrational.  (2012, July 4).  Retrieved November 27, 2021, from

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"Social Psychology Studies: Explaining Irrational."  July 4, 2012.  Accessed November 27, 2021.