Rethinking the ‘nature’ of brutality: Uncovering the role of identity leadership in the Stanford Prison Experiment


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Description: On the basis of findings from the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), Zimbardo and colleagues (e.g., Haney, Banks & Zimbardo, 1973) have argued that people’s willingness to oppress others — whether in the world at large or in classic social psychological studies — is the result of a tendency to conform ‘naturally’ to brutal roles. In contrast, Haslam and Reicher (e.g., 2007) have argued that it results from leadership which encourages potential perpetrators to identify with what is presented as a noble ingroup cause and to see their actions as necessary for the advancement of that cause. We review a range of evidence to show that such an analysis explains other classic studies of toxic behaviour (e.g. Milgram’s obedience studies). Nevertheless, researchers have hitherto had limited capacity to establish whether analysis framed in terms of identity leadership can account for brutality in the SPE. This has changed following the recent digitization of the SPE archive. Using recordings from the archive we show how the experimenters directly intervened to persuade Guards to adopt their roles and to act tough. Moreover, we show how these interventions accord with the tenets of identity leadership. Implications for the analysis of conformity, the understanding of brutality and the interpretation of the SPE are discussed.


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