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Define the terms “status” and “role”.
Status refers to the relative position of an individual or group in a social setting and is affected by prestige, control over scarce resources, power and the roles assigned to the subject (Schooler 1994). In consumer research status is measured along the dimensions of various capitals. Economic capital is the financial resources and assets, social capital is conferred by one’s relations, associations and acquaintances, and cultural capital is in the form of knowledge and skills (Bourdieu 1986). All these capitals grant an individual a specific status in the society. Status can be a very important motivator and dictator of social behavior. Striving for the maintenance and improvement of status is a basic human characteristic and rarely does any human become free of the status games played in the society.
Social roles are strongly linked with the status one has in the society and vice versa. Roles are the specific ways in which humans interact and relate with other individuals and institutions (McLeod 2008). Every human has multiple roles and he or she is dictated by the norms of the society as to how he/she should enact a particular role. For example for a middle aged married man the possible roles could be son, husband, father, employee, supervisor, club member, volunteer at the local church etc. One could also assume that he will have a mediocre or higher level of status in the society.
What did Zimbardo’s research teach us about the nature of status and roles?
Zimbardo (1973) did an important manipulation in status and roles of the participants and the resulting changes in their behavior were surprising and influential. The participants were randomly assigned a higher or lower status by assigning them the role of prison guard or prisoner respectively. What we learn from Zimbardo’s experiment is that status and roles are strongly influenced by the subject’s perception. Many of the individuals started perceiving the status difference and their role as real and this lead to their behaving accordingly. The guards took on a domineering persona and some prisoners became submissive while others became rebellious. The domineering guards and the submissive prisoners were probably the ones most strongly believing in their assigned roles and were behaving stereotypically. This leads us to the conclusion that status and roles have a strong cognitive component in addition to the societal. Additionally status and roles also can also allow humans to commit atrocities that even they themselves could not have expected from themselves. This finding is concerning and suggests that our behavior is heavily dependent on contextual factors and whatever moral code or inner virtue we have can be overcome by particular roles given to us.
Now, suppose that one day Stanley Milgram happened to pick up a journal and read about Zimbardo’s research. To what extent would Milgram be surprised by Zimbardo’s results? Why do you say that?
There are many similarities between the findings of Zimbardo (1973) and Milgram (McLeod 2007) along with some differences. In Milgram’s study a majority (65%) of the participants obediently administered fatal shocks to the subject under the experimenter’s direction. This suggested that authority is one variable that can make us suspend our personal judgment, empathy and moral codes. Zimbardo’s research also revealed that humans are capable of inflicting harm to others under someone’s authority. The prison guards were acting under Zimbardo’s authority who was acting as the prison superintendent and they played the part assigned to them with particular aggression. What was different was that Zimbardo’s guards had more room for improvising and more freedom in how they went about playing that role. Milgram’s subjects were given specific instructions and the experiment was more rigidly designed. For Milgram it will be surprising because this suggests that it is not only authority that can influence humans towards atrocities but social status, situation and roles can also be important factors.
Both the experiments also reveal the complex ways in which we use rationalization in justifying whatever we do. We take for granted our circumstances and fail to put ourselves in the other person’s position showing a lack of empathy. We would clearly not want the same treatment to be applied to us as we inflicted on others but being in a superior position we somehow put aside empathy and rationalize our actions. The guards in Zimbardo’s experiment failed to consider the possibility that given the random assignment they could just as easily be the prisoners. Had they considered this possibility it is likely that they would not have been as sadistic as they were. Similarly, Milgram’s experiment design was such that it could not be so but had the ‘teachers’ even considered the possibility that they could be the learner’s the results would have been very different. They rationalized their actions with beliefs that overcame their empathy. Milgram will be amazed at the finding that humans can come up with rationalizations even when it is not readily available to them in the form of authority. They will rely on stereotypes, the props available to them, the context and the subject’s behavior for providing them with rationalizations that they use to justify their behavior.
McLeod, S. A. 2008. “Social Roles.” Retrieved Mar. 3, 2015 (http://www.simplypsychology.org/social-roles.html).
McLeod, S. A. 2007. “The Milgram Experiment.” Retrieved Mar. 3, 2015, (http://www.simplypsychology.org/milgram.html).
Bourdieu, Pierre. 2011. “The forms of capital.(1986)." Pp. 81-93 in Cultural theory: An anthology. Edited by Imre Szeman, and Timothy Kaposy. John Wiley & Sons.
Schooler, Carmi. 1994. “A working conceptualization of social structure: Mertonian roots and psychological and sociocultural relationships.” Social Psychology Quarterly 57:262–273.
Haney, Craig, W. Curtis Banks, and Philip G. Zimbardo. 1973. "Study of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison." Naval Research Reviews 9:1-17.
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