Your first approach to study is the Social Approach. You will need to bring your notes and answers to class to be assessed on your understanding of the study.
2006 was a year for group behaviour. In Iraq, the conflict between religious groups and the occupying forces reached its bloodiest point, finishing with the execution by hanging of Saddam Hussein himself. Over in the Lebanon, a vicious conflict erupted between Hezbollah and the Israeli military. The music charts were dominated by conformity, with X-Factor dominating the airwaves (Leona Lewis, Shayne Ward and, err, Chico Slimani) but some individuals broke the mold: Sandi Thom and Lily Allen launched their own careers through MySpace.
The study by Reicher & Haslam is a prison simulation, carried out with the assistance of the BBC. The social behaviour it looks at is very complicated. Also, this study is based on an older “classic” prison simulation from the 1970s – the Stanford Prison Experiment (S.P.E.). You will need to know a little about the S.P.E. in order to understand what Reicher & Haslam are attempting to do in this study.
Since the Second World War many psychologists have tried to explain the appeal and behaviour of the Nazi government and its members. In 1971 Philip Zimbardo carried out the Stanford Prison Experiment, recruiting student volunteers to be prisoners and guards and turning a college basement into a simulated prison. The experiment was cancelled after only 6 days because the guards' treatment of the prisoners had become so inhumane. Zimbardo claimed that everyone involed (himself included!) lost their own sense of identity because of the roles they were conforming to. The SPE is a piece of landmark research and Zimbardo's conclusions were not challenged for many years because no one was willing to replicate such a notorious study.
Steve Reicher and Alex Haslam thought the SPE was due for an overhaul. Zimbardo had briefed his guards on how to create feelings of powerlessness in the prisoners - and in the SPE the guards did not know they were being studied as part of the experiment. Zimbardo's prisoners had been arrested by real policemen at their homes, stripped, deloused and dressed in smocks without underwear. Reicher & Haslam wanted to create a prison simulation that didn't have these powerful demand characteristics. They were also interested to see if people have a choice in whether or not they conform to roles and what sort of conditions encourage or prevent the "slide into tyranny".
Reicher & Haslam aimed to create a simulated prison that didn't suffer from the ethical problems and the demand characteristics that plagued the SPE.
They wanted to find out if social identity (a sense of belonging) was a better explanation for the prisoners' and guards' behaviour than role-conformity.
They particularly wanted to explore two new concepts that affect how people behave in groups: PERMEABILITY (the sense that you can move from one group to another) and SECURITY (being aware of alternatives and feeling you can challenge the status quo).
The method was an experimental case study. Experimental, because the researchers made changes happen to see how the participants behaved as a result (IVs affecting DVs). Case study, because one group of people was being studied in detail.
Male volunteers were recruited through newspaper ads. Various psychological tests brought the final selection down to 15, with a mix of ages, social classes and ethnic backgrounds. Five groups were created, matched on having similar personalities. From each group, one guard and two prisoners were randomly selected.
The BBC built a simulated prison which was monitored with cameras and audio microphones in every area. The prisoners stayed in 3-man cells and the guards had a more comfortable dorm. Prisoner food was very basic but the guards ate well and had access to cigarettes and chocolate. The guards were briefed beforehand, told to respect the prisoners' basic rights and were allowed to lock prisoners up, see into their cells and give out rewards (eg cigarettes) and punishments (eg a bread and water diet). Everyone was warned about the stresses of the simulation and signed a consent form.
Unlike the SPE, Reicher & Haslam planned 3 deliberate interventions, to see what effect they would have on the prisoners and the guards.
1. PERMEABILITY: Everyone was told that the guards had been specially chosen for having very positive personality traits (this was not true). They were told that, if prisoners demonstrated these traits, they would be promoted to guards ("permeable roles"). One prisoner was promoted on DAy 3, but then everyone was told there would be no more promotions ("impermeable roles").
2. LEGITIMACY: At first everyone believed the guards had been selected because of their positive personality traits ("legitimate roles"). Reicher & Haslam planned to tell everyone after a while that the guards had been chosen randomly, that there was no real difference between the guards and the prisoners and the roles were down to luck ("illegitimate roles"). This intervention was not needed, as things turned out.
4. COGNITIVE ALTERNATIVES: Reicher & Haslam introduced a new prisoner after 4 days, code named DMp. This person had been a trade union official with skills in negotiation and organisation. He might inspire people to do things differently.
Various measures were taken every day, using psychometric tests. Prisoners and guards filled out these questionnaires, which measured changes in these variables:
1. SOCIAL IDENTIFICATION: how strongly did people feel about their group?
2. ORGANISATIONAL COMPLIANCE: how much did people respect the rules?
3. CLINICAL VARIABLES: things like self-esteem, depression and authoritarianism
In addition, everyone gave a saliva sample each day that was used to measure cortisol (a stress hormone in the body).
Finally, Reicher & Haslam collected qualitative data by recording the conversations between prisoners and guards.
The participants gave informed consent. The study was monitored by a team of independent psychologists who had the power to close the simulation down at any point. A team of security guards were on hand to intervene if things got unpleasant in the prison. A first aid team was also on hand.
Everyone seemed to be engaged with their roles: the prisoners hated the food and disliked being locked up and not being able to smoke; the guards worried about using their power and did not want to be seen to be "authoritarian". At first everyone worked well together but after Day 3, when the prisoners could no longer earn promotion, the relationships broke down. Some prisoners mocked the guards and one stole a guard's set of keys. The guards bickered and could not present a united front to the prisoners. When the guards issued extra sausages to the prisoners at meal time, the prisoners saw this as weakness. Reicher & Haslam realised there was no need for intervention #2. Instead they introduced DMp on Day 5; immediately this prisoner encouraged the two groups to start negotiating. However, Reicher & Haslam pulled DMp out of the prison the next day and relations broke down again. At the end of Day 6 a group of prisoners "rebelled" and occupied the guards' quarters.
Reicher & Haslam set up a meeting to negotiate new rules. The participants wanted a "commune" where power would be shared more equally. This only lasted a day, because two ex-prisoners started breaking the commune's rules. A new group (an ex-guard and two ex-prisoners) came forward with plans for a much tougher regime with harsh punishments and no one opposed them. At this point, on Day 8, Reicher & Haslam closed down the study.
SOCIAL IDENTIFICATION was low until after Day 3, when roles became impermeable. Then the prisoners started identifying strongly with their group, but the guards still had low levels of social identification. Prisoner COMPLIANCE went down after Day 3. For the prisoners, SELF-ESTEEM went up and DEPRESSION went down, but not for the guards. Everyone's AUTHORITARIANISM went up, expecially by Day 7 when things were breaking down.
The findings show people don't automatically conform to roles. Variables like permeability and cognitive alternatives seem to affect how strongly people identify with their groups and their roles.
Strong social identification created supportive groups and helped individuals have positive mental states (high self-esteem, low depression).
The failure of groups created opportunities for change. When the guards' regime failed, a commune was set up. When the commune failed, the "slide into tyranny" began. The slide into tyranny is not automatic; it happens when groups break down.
It is possible to run ethical simulations into social roles.