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How do social roles influence behavior? Use Zimbardo’s prison study as an example.

Social Approach

Psychology Essays

 A Level/AS Level/O Level

Free Essay Outline

Briefly define social roles and conformity. Introduce Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) and its aim of investigating the influence of social roles on behavior. State your argument: that the SPE demonstrates how readily individuals adopt and conform to assigned social roles, even to the detriment of their personal beliefs and values.

The Stanford Prison Experiment
Describe the SPE methodology: random assignment of participants to guard or prisoner roles, the simulated prison environment, and observation of behavior. Explain the key findings: guards exhibited increasingly authoritarian and abusive behavior, while prisoners became passive, submissive, and experienced emotional distress.

Deindividuation and Conformity to Roles
Explain the concept of deindividuation and how it relates to the SPE. Discuss how anonymity, uniforms, and power dynamics contributed to a loss of individual identity and responsibility among the guards. Highlight the influence of situational factors over individual dispositions in shaping behavior.

Ethical Considerations
Briefly address the ethical concerns raised by the SPE, particularly the potential for psychological harm to participants. Acknowledge the study's impact on ethical guidelines in psychological research.

Real-World Applications and Limitations
Discuss how the findings of the SPE can be applied to real-world settings, such as Abu Ghraib prison scandal, highlighting the dangers of unchecked authority and the potential for abuse within hierarchical structures. Mention some limitations of the SPE, such as its artificial environment and potential for demand characteristics.

Restate the argument that social roles exert a powerful influence on behavior. Summarize how the SPE provides compelling evidence for the impact of situational factors on conformity and the dangers of unchecked authority.

Free Essay

How do social roles influence behavior? Use Zimbardo’s prison study as an example.

Social roles are the expected behaviours, attitudes and responsibilities associated with a particular position or status within a social group. These roles can be formal, such as a teacher or doctor, or informal, such as a friend or family member. They provide a framework for social interaction, helping us to understand how to behave in different situations. However, social roles can also have a significant impact on our behaviour, leading us to act in ways that we might not ordinarily do. One of the most famous examples of this is the Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted by Philip Zimbardo in 1971.

The Stanford Prison Experiment was a psychological study that investigated the effects of social roles on behaviour. The study involved 24 male college students, who were randomly assigned to the roles of either guard or prisoner in a simulated prison environment. The guards were given uniforms, batons, and sunglasses, while the prisoners were given prison outfits and assigned prisoner numbers. The study lasted for only six days, but during that time, the guards became increasingly aggressive and abusive towards the prisoners, while the prisoners became increasingly submissive and passive. The study was eventually terminated due to concerns about the ethical treatment of the participants.

The Stanford Prison Experiment provides a clear example of how social roles can influence behaviour. The guards in the experiment, despite having no prior experience with prisons or authority, quickly adopted the roles assigned to them and began to behave in ways that were consistent with those roles. They became aggressive and abusive, even though they had no intention of doing so before the experiment began. Similarly, the prisoners became passive and submissive, even though they were initially healthy and well-adjusted individuals.

There are several possible explanations for the findings of the Stanford Prison Experiment. One possibility is that the participants were simply acting out the roles that they had been assigned. The guards were given uniforms, batons, and sunglasses, which may have led them to feel more powerful and authorized to act in aggressive and abusive ways. The prisoners, on the other hand, were stripped of their individuality and given prison outfits and prisoner numbers, which may have led them to feel powerless and submissive.

Another possibility is that the environment of the simulated prison played a role in shaping the participants' behaviour. The prison environment was designed to be oppressive and dehumanizing, and this may have contributed to the guards' aggression and the prisoners' passivity.

The Stanford Prison Experiment has been criticized for its ethical flaws and methodological limitations. However, it remains a powerful example of the influence of social roles on behavior. The study suggests that even people who are not predisposed to aggression or passivity can be influenced by the social roles that they are assigned.

The findings of the Stanford Prison Experiment have important implications for understanding the behaviour of people in real-world settings, such as prisons, schools, and workplaces. It also highlights the need for careful consideration of the ethical implications of social roles and the potential for these roles to shape behaviour in undesirable ways.


Zimbardo, P. G. (2007). The Lucifer effect: Understanding how good people turn evil. New York: Random House.

Haney, C., Banks, C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1973). Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison. International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 1, 69-97.

Reicher, S., & Haslam, S. A. (2006). Rethinking the psychology of tyranny: The BBC prison study. British Journal of Social Psychology, 45(1), 1-40.

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