Friday, November 23, 2012

The Psychology of Tyranny vs. the Nature of Conformity

When we see somebody doing bad things, we assume they are bad people to begin with. – Dr. Philip Zimbardo, The Stanford Prison Experiment

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Anna Hunt, Contributor
Activist Post

The foundation for understanding the psychology of tyranny and human obedience is based on classical studies such as the Stanford Prison Experiment conducted in 1971 by Dr. Philip Zimbardo, and the Milgram Obedience Experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s, with very little done since then in terms of research into this form of extreme behavior.

These experiments showed that ordinary people will participate, sometimes enthusiastically, in acts of cruelty when put in roles of authority or are instructed by authority figures to engage in such acts.
Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority. – Stanley Milgram, “The Perils of Obedience,” 1974
Milgram and Zimbardo’s theories are now challenged by professors Alex Haslam and Stephen Reicher who published a recent essay, “Contesting the 'Nature' Of Conformity: What Milgram and Zimbardo’s Studies Really Show”, in PLOS Bilology.

Haslam and Reicher argue that people do not conform blindly to the roles and rules of authority, but they conform because they identify with the authority. These conformists do not lack intelligence or morality, but are aware of what they are doing and believe that what they are doing is right.
…the fundamental point is that tyranny does not flourish because perpetrators are helpless and ignorant of their actions. It flourishes because they actively identify with those who promote vicious acts as virtuous. It is this conviction that steels participants to do their dirty work and that makes them work energetically and creatively to ensure its success. – Haslam and Reicher, “Contesting the “Nature” Of Conformity: What Milgram and Zimbardo’s Studies Really Show,” Nov. 2012
The power of the environment has a way of changing and transforming people to a point of obedience and conformity, and, sadly, cruelty.

In our world, we are conditioned to obey authority – school faculty, TSA agents, police, the IRS – always for good reasons, of course – education, safety, security. Destructive acts can easily be presented as constructive and necessary. Yet, Haslam’s research highlights that perhaps our relationship with authority is not necessarily as straight forward as it used to be in 1960s and 1970s.

We are not thoughtless. We are not helpless.
What we wanted to show [in our research] is that groups are also a basis for resistance… – Professor Alex Haslam
Video: The Stanford Prison Experiment – featuring Dr. Philip Zimbardo

Video: BBC The Experiment – Prison Study – featuring Professor Alex Haslam

Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View by Stanley Milgram


Anna Hunt is a writer and entrepreneur  with over a decade of experience in research and editorial writing. She and her husband run a preparedness e-store outlet at, offering GMO-free storable food and emergency kits. Anna is also a certified Hatha yoga instructor. She enjoys raising her children and being a voice for optimal human health and wellness. Read more of her excellent articles here.


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Anonymous said...

This post should be required reading for all the hup hup military/security types."I vass honly doink mine duty" didn't fly then. It won't fly now.

spiraldance said...

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide Trailer

gender-based violence is the most wide-spread tyranny

Anonymous said...

Ha ha it was so funny watching the differences between British and American attitudes in prison politics. The American study was reminiscent of Cool Hand Luke; "What we've got here is failure to communicate..." and then over here, across the pond, we have polite British diplomacy among "authority" and its "subjects". I giggled when the British psychologists got around to pointing it out. 'Do ya think so?' They also say there are differences in today's approach to authority that are more pronounced from the 60s and 70s. Nah. Looked to me like it's more cultural than anything. Back then, in America, there were so many prison movies and documentaries being produced it was a whole genre on its own, like Westerns; sort of a pre-condition of being American,
I suppose.

The earlier American study was a success and nailed down what appears to be the seed of cruelty in human nature (one man fully taking on the role in this case) with the fertilizer of a cruel environment and shows how it spreads like a fast creeping mycelium in a petri dish. It doesn't take a genius. Judging the way things are these days, it wouldn't be surprising if this study was taught and applied in the military, law enforcement, the correctional industry and dare I say it; the TSA as a way to grow the creeping "authority" web outward from center.

The British study wanted to find something else and maybe it did, or hoped it would. Cultural differences aside, compared to a fast-creeping fungus, it was a slower forming one in this later experiment. The British petri dish was much more sanitary and pleasant. That still doesn't change the perimeters of the petri dish; a cage is a cage.

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