Society and the Roles We Play/Zimbardo and the Hoax

Psych 333: Social Psychology Society and the Roles We Play/Zimbardo and the Hoax As social human beings we encounter the powerful effects of roles every day. Whether you’re an experienced doctor or a propane truck driver, your roles are much more than just a small piece of a big picture. Our roles are in nature a social element that when used correctly can slightly or completely alter another’s. When used maliciously our roles can not only psychologically damage an individual or a handful of people, but also the masses.
Adolf Hitler’s role as a chancellor changed the roles of normal German soldiers to genocidal henchmen which in turn changed the Jews’ roles as a race of beautiful people to what seemed like verminous animals needing extermination. The dynamics of social roles are not always this drastic but when they are, our life as we know it changes. To see how similar a real life tragedy and a staged study are with damaging effects of roles, it is important to analyze the Stanford Prison Experiment and a very horrible real life tragedy comparatively.
In order to explain such a socially fascinating phenomenon as the Stanford Prison Experiment led by Zimbardo, we must first see what social psychological factors were at play. First it is important to know that all participants in this experiment including the prisoners, the guards, and the confederates gave their full consent to participate. This is important because the main method of this experiment would make the participants take on different roles. This method helped determine the purpose of this experiment which is whether or not the participants’ would perceive their roles as pretending or reality.

This perception was shown through behavior from both prisoners and guards as a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is evident because the reciprocal behaviors expressed by the prisoner participants and the guard participants would amplify each other’s behavior. An increase of aggression causes an increase in submissiveness which in turn amplifies aggression and continuous into a vicious cycle. The experiment has been argued to have been unsuccessful; however the experiment contained a high amount of experimental realism. Although the experiment was unethical it yielded fascinating results from both the prisoners and the guards.
First I believe it is important to analyze the behavior exhibited by the participants in the experiment. Prior to the experiment, the participants were in fact informed about the nature of the experiment and the moment they were arrested they would assume their roles as prisoners. A majority of the experiment was done inside of the prison. It was during this time that the prisoners displayed many social psychological behaviors that result from playing a submissive role. The progression of the experiment’s time also caused some of these interesting behaviors to amplify.
It is important to understand that the underlining quality that the prisoners in this study exhibited was learned helplessness. This is predominantly evident when the prisoners’ acts of rebellion toward the guards diminish. This leaved the prisoners with an overall sense of helplessness. They were more likely to submit to the hostile and aggressive demands of the guards. Although some of the demands of the guards such as doing countless numbers of pushups would seem unethical in a real prison, even a participant assuming a false role as a prisoner follows such preposterous demands.
What is more perplexing about this study was the fact that these participants in fact knew that they were not really guilty of any crime but as the experiment progressed and the guards became more aggressive the inmates displayed very passive behavior because they knew that their behaviors could not change the current predicament that they were in. Another remarkable concept that helped reinforce the participants’ roles as prisoners was the Saying-Becomes-Believing Effect. In one instance the participant known as prisoner 8612 would either rebel or would show what would be seen as undesirable behaviors in the guards’ eyes.
After doing this the guards would have the inmates punished and also have them chant “Prisoner 8612 was bad”. The prisoners seemed to show a certain degree of animosity towards prisoner 8612 and eventually led to his outright emotional breakdown and made him to truly believe that he was a bad prisoner. This again shows the strength of learned helplessness in social cognition. Prisoner 8612 believed he was a bad prisoner; therefore he became a bad prisoner. The only thing more fascinating than the growing submission of the prisoners had to be the increasing aggression by the prisoners.
It is a confounding concept that in most prisons, the idea that prison guards act more harshly towards an inmate because they are in fact psychologically feeding off of the prisoners’ submissiveness. The guards in the study were introduced exactly as the prisoners were to the study’s nature just as different roles. Their roles would begin the moment they arrested the prisoners. Upon arriving to the prison however, the guards would assume an entirely different role than a prisoner.
These soon-to-be tyrants would use one of the most powerful social psychological weapons in their armory: deception. The Stanford Prison guards used deception in a number of ways during this study. In the experiment they introduced the privilege cell and the penalty box to the prisoners. The privilege cell was a much nicer cell than the ones given to the rest of the prisoners. When the guards put certain prisoners in the privilege cell this deceived the other prisoners into believing that this prisoner was good which in turn caused the prisoners to be more behaved.
The same deception was used in punishing the prisoner with the penalty box which was a small broom closet sized room which would be used to keep the prisoners when they were bad. Another method of deception that the guards inflicted was towards the family of the prisoners. The guards forced the prisoners to write to their families constantly that everything was going well in the prison. Along with these letters the prisoners would also force the prisoners to identify themselves as their assigned numbers rather than their actual names.
I confounding factor that also helped in the amplifying aggression of the guards towards the prisoners was their act of justification. It is rather odd that regular people who for the most part did not assume any kind of authoritative role use authority in such a severe way. When questioning the severity of their actions towards the prisoners justified their actions by telling themselves that they are being told to be this way towards the prisoners and also that the prisoners’ behaviors caused them to bring the consequences upon themselves. The experiment seemed so real that it could not even complete the full desired duration.
This experiment will always be remembered as one of the biggest contributions to social psychology because it showed the powerful effects of submissiveness vs. authority. It was because of this experiment also question and reevaluate what is and isn’t ethical in social psychology experiments. It also shows us how people whether they are in positions of authority or not can manipulate this powerful psychological element against others causing not only psychological and emotional ramifications, but also legal ones as well. This was seen in one of the cruelest hoaxes ever played.
The hoax that I am describing was one that went from what seemed to be a mean prank call, to dozens of legal repercussions and countless victims of emotional and psychological distress. These calls were made by David R. Stewart. Although Stewart seemed like a man of average intelligence, it wouldn’t be unfair to consider him to be a social psychological genius. Stewart’s calls as a person in a position of authority not only manipulated his victims but also tormented them with a number of social psychological weapons but also used the psychological factors of his victims against themselves.
He was sometimes able to take two innocent people and make one a victim of sexual assault and the other a victim in a single phone call. In order to analyze how Stewart was able to succeed at this it is important to see what psychological factors were in play both in the mind of Stewart and his victims. First, Stewart assumed a role of authority as a police officer, corporate employee, or federal officer. This role helped Stewart claim legitimacy to his victims. Although this would seem like enough to control his victims he also used a factor that was possessed not by him but by his victims.
Stewart attacked those who worked in the food industry. This may seem odd but it is fact a very intelligent group of people to attack because people in the food industry are trained to be more obedient than others traditionally would. Society’s schema of the food industry portrays it in such a fashion that the number one priority of the industry’s employees is customer satisfaction. In order to achieve customer satisfaction the employees must obey the customer’s wishes. When the employee is on this type of a mindset it isn’t unfair to say that their vulnerability to authority would also heighten.
The heightened obedience to authority also arises from another social schema of law enforcement. We tend to live in the illusion that because law enforcement has a higher authority than civilians do, we must do everything they tell us to. This schema is also the reason police often get a confession or information leading to a confession from people because although individuals have the right to remain silent, police use authority to trick them into confessing. The perplexing aspect of this event is not just the acts themselves that were performed, but the fact that the acts grew more and more sexually perverse.
Although the act of the hoax itself was perplexing, it is even more fascinating on how the public criticized the whole phenomenon. This alone had so many interesting psychological happenings. Even news broadcasters like Fox-TV called the “victims” of this hoax were “colossally stupid”. Another made a statement quoting “They had the critical ability to decide whether to carry out their orders”. Statements like these show both a hindsight bias and a self-serving bias. People claim that they would never perform perverse and lewd acts on another because an authoritative figure told them to do so.
The self-serving bias is the fact that they believe they would personally behave more favorably and the hindsight bias is the fact they claim they would have behaved differently after they heard of the incident. Although people harshly criticized the victims Stewart did in fact con two thirds of the people he called. This proves an interesting argument because people who read this story will most likely claim that they will never behave in such the fashion the victims did, but because of these social biases it is impossible to know if one would truly fall for a hoax like that.
Many look at Zimbardo’s and Milgram’s studies and see the obvious social psychological connection between both. What is interesting is how this real world hoax and the two above studies have very predominant similarities. Both instances involve two different groups of normal people assuming a role and watch how their roles completely change their lives. In both situations people who would never normally behave to the roles they were given behave exactly to their roles. In both situations the submissiveness of one person amplifies the aggression and authority of another.
In both situations the victims’ roles caused long term psychological and emotional distress. It shows us a society full of schemas that is naturally obedient in following orders whether we believe them to be right or wrong. So in essence these incidents are very relevant to each other and also to social psychology as a field. It is relevant to how we think, how we behave, and how we interact with others. The average person would say that Zimbardo’s study was obviously unethical. This is true because it is unethical.
The American Psychological Association provides the Institutional Review Boards to keep experiments ethical and protect the participants in this study. The fact that participants in the study underwent emotional distress proves that the study was unethical. In hindsight, if Stewart’s hoax was indeed replicated it would be terribly unethical to say the least. It is because Zimbardo’s study being so similar to the hoax that roles become psychological damaging. In Zimbardo’s experiment, the participants felt the effects of a six day role long after the study.
In Stewart’s hoax, just a few minutes or hours changed some of the victims involved for the rest of their lives. Although it is fair to challenge ourselves as psychologist, experiments with the psychological severity of the Stanford prison experiment are not needed because we know the social psychological implications of role playing. This analysis fits very well with the social psychological perspective. Roles, schemas, and biases show the dynamic of the human’s psychological potential.
You do not have to be a PhD psychologist to manipulate more than sixty average people to perform sexual or lewd acts on other innocent people. It also does not take a PhD psychologist to give average people a role that is unordinary to them and watch them change as a person. What seems like simple terms in social psychology can be used as powerful and manipulative weapons in psychological warfare. These concepts also help realize the importance of the roles that we play every day and how they can change the social world as we know it.

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