What makes a good person do a bad thing? How did normal people commit horrifying atrocities in the Holocaust and why did neighbors turn on each other during the Rwandan Genocide? Why do people partake in events when they know what they are doing is contrary to their own moral beliefs? These questions may never be answered, but many psychological experiments have been performed to test the effects that conformity and perceived power have on an individual’s behavior.
Psychology in the Stanford Prison Experiment
In 1971, Philip Zimbardo organized the Stanford Prison Experiment. His initial hopes for the experiment were to test the psychological effects of prison, using normal college students given the role of a guard or a prisoner. These two roles were set up to simulate feelings of power for the guard and dehumanization for the prisoner. In order to gain accurate data to how perceived power influenced psychological behavior, Zimbardo needed to make the conditions of the prison as real as possible. He achieved this by transforming the psychology building into a makeshift prison and equipping the “guards” and “prisoners” with their own uniform.
As the experiment continued, however, prisoners began taunting the guards, prompting some of the guards to use their authority, mentally and physically abusing the prisoners. Zimbardo and his team recognized that the experiment was getting out of hand so they ended the 2 week experiment after only 6 days. Even though the experiment ended early, Zimbardo gathered significant data about dangers of perceived power. Although the guards were all of a previous healthy mental state and of normal intelligence, they became violent and malicious perpetrators against the prisoners in the experiment. The question about how and why they were able to act contrary to their moral compass lies in the power they were given as guards and the view they had on the prisoners – humiliating and dehumanizing the prisoners made the guards feel superior and like they had the right to treat them badly.
Group Mentality in the Ash Conformity Experiment
Another psychological experiment that presents impactful insight on human behavior is the Asch Conformity Experiment. In this experiment, a group of people were shown a line and asked to match it to one of three other lines, A, B, or C. Most of the participants were “in” on the experiment and picked an incorrect line purposefully, but one participant had not been told which line to pick and did not know that others were choosing incorrectly on purpose. As the test began, the normal participant repeated what the others chose even though it was obviously the wrong answer. Asch’s findings from this experiment proved that people will conform, or follow, group mentality even if they know the group is incorrect.
How are the Stanford Prison Experiment and Asch Conformity Experiment relevant today?
How are these experiments still relevant today? Our human history has taught us that people in positions of perceived power can be extremely dangerous, especially when conforming to the mentality of a group.
Psychology in the Holocaust
An extreme example of this is the Holocaust. In his book, “Ordinary Men”, Christopher Browning analyzes the impact of psychology on why Nazis in the Holocaust chose to participate in the killing of European Jews. One thing he noted was that many of the men had a choice and decided to kill because it was what their government and superiors were strongly promoting. These choices follow the ideas in The Asch Conformity Experiment and also tie into the Stanford Prison Experiment because of the feelings of superiority the Nazis gave themselves over others. However, Browning makes the distinction that in the end we cannot blame our actions on psychology and we are all responsible for the choices we make and the impacts they have on others.
“Within virtually every social collective, the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets moral norms.”Christopher Browning
Source: “Ordinary Men”, page 99
Psychology in the Rwandan Genocide
Just like how conformity played a large role in the Holocaust, the killers in the Rwandan Genocide employed psychology in order to convince normal Hutu people to turn on and kill their Tutsi neighbors. A large factor in both this genocide and the Holocaust was propaganda. Dehumanizing Tutsis and Jews made people more likely to conform to hateful ideologies. Constant exposure to the radio during the Rwandan Genocide played a large role in how neighbors suddenly viewed Tutsis in a negative light and decided to kill them. The power of group mentality greatly influences the susceptibility of someone to conformity, which was the main reason that the Rwandan Genocide was able to happen. The notion of the “other” – Jews in the Holocaust and Tutsis in the Rwandan Genocide – has been popularly used to gain unity against these groups and has led to killings. This idea of superiority of one group over another also comes from feelings of conformity and “ordinary” people following more radical leaders.
Applying Psychology Today in Our Social Roles
Today, we may not face choices like the Nazis or be placed in a position of great power over other human beings. However, it is important to remember that people are hard-wired to follow group mentality rather than stay true to their own principles. Social roles today, and historically, have warned us about the dangers of putting ourselves above other people, especially if we are in positions of power. In the end, our human responsibility is completely unique to each of us, but developing strong morals can help overcome the simplicity of conformity.
Browning, Christopher. “Ordinary Men.” Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.
McLeod, Saul. “Solomon Asch – Conformity Experiment.” Simply Psychology, 28 Dec. 2018, http://www.simplypsychology.org/asch-conformity.html. Accessed 26 Mar. 2020.
Zimbardo, Philip. “The Story: An Overview of the Experiment.” Stanford Prison Experiment, Philip Zimbardo, http://www.prisonexp.org/. Accessed 26 Mar. 2020.
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