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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