Need a unique essay?
Order now

Essay on the Influence of Power Roles on Behavior

7 pages
1883 words
George Washington University
Type of paper: 
This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

Power roles seem to invariably influence Peoples behavior as depicted by various authors. In the Stanford Prison experiment, one of the most controversial studies in the modern history of social psychology, Philip Zimbardo randomly assigned willing student volunteers the role of either guard or prisoner (Haslam and Reicher). The experiment was conducted in a mock prison in the basement of Stanford University. Alternative explanations in the form of preconditioned dispositions were eliminated through a deliberate subject selection process. According to the lore that has grown around the study, the guards without cue began psychologically abusing and humiliating the prisoners within just 24 hours of the experiments start. The prisoners, on the other hand, became increasingly depersonalized and submissive and took all the abuse in without protest. The behavior only got worse from there, necessitating a cessation of the study by the sixth day although it was supposed to last for about two weeks. The findings of the study, in many quarters, have often been about how regular human beings harbor potentialities inside them as evidenced by the abrupt change in the behavioral patterns of the two groups during the experiment. The common interpretation of this is that the study provided a revelation of the atavistic impulses that possibly lurk within us all and that with only a little nudging, virtually anyone could resort to brutalizing behavior. The change in behavior has often been attributed to a combination of the change in social roles and internalized cues from media portrayals of the two roles. However, even though leaders can be overzealous and utilize their authority in negative or demeaning manner, power roles, such as within the prison system must influence the behavior of all individuals because there is a clearly designated leader who enforces the rules.

One of the striking things about the prison experiment was the influence of social roles in shaping behavior. Before the prison experiment, it was widely held that the cause of behavior was largely dispositional. It was assumed that an individual's behavior could be attributed to personal factors such as traits, feelings or abilities. However, the breakdown and degeneration of established morals and rules governing how human beings treated each other in the experiment revealed a completely different story. Like a real-life Lord of Flies, the experiment revealed that the basis of behavior was rather situational; meaning that it was dependent a lot more on the situational factors (Haslam and Reicher). The fact that the selection of roles for the two groups was randomized and no one was given instructions on how to conduct themselves during the experiment implies that the changes in behavior were organic. One could argue, however, that the change of behavior was more attributable to the guards and that the learned helplessness that the prisoners seemed to acquire was reactionary to the way the guards brutalized them. One could, therefore, posit that the single most important reason for the change in behavior in both cadres in the prison was the power roles ascribed to them.

In the Stanford Prison Experiment, simply as a consequence of ascribing the power roles of guard and prisoner to the students, the latter became increasingly passive, with some prisoners even showing signs of psychological disturbance as the experiment progressed, while the former became brutal and aggressive (Zimbardo). According to the conclusions made by Zimbardo and his colleagues, the dehumanizing brutality portrayed by the guards was displayed simply as a natural response to wearing the guards uniform and wielding power over the prisoners. Using the Stanford Prison Experiment and combining it with the changes witnessed in the boys in Lord of the Flies,' one can safely conclude that immersion in a group has an undermining effect on the constraints that normally act on people when they act and conduct themselves as individuals. Underlining the findings that the behaviors witnessed was the result of a psychologically compelling prison environment, in interviews after the experiments, it emerged through interview and questionnaires that the prisoners had different stereotypes of prison behavior (Zimbardo). With that in mind, one can preclude response to perceived experimental demand the cause for the behavior changes witnessed. The responses in the Stanford Prison Experiment were so extreme that it led to parties questioning the legitimacy of subjecting participants, whether voluntary or not, to such conditions.

Changes in behavior


Being chosen as a guard carried with it a higher social status within the prison in the Stanford Prison Experiment. The khaki uniform conferred to the students chosen as guards a group identity giving them a sense of unity and granting each guard to act in any way they pleased keeping in mind that they had the group for protection and validation. The guards were granted the freedom to exercise an unprecedented degree of control since each of the subjects had consented to a waiver of their civil liberties while within the prison (Haslam and Reicher). This freedom was manifested by how the guards treated the prisoners. As the study progressed, their treatment of the prisoners acquired a dehumanizing characteristic to it with sanctions, humiliation, demands and the threat to manifest physical power over the prisoners becoming central to the guard-prisoner interaction (Craig, Banks and Zimbardo). The dehumanizing behavior was particularly prominent after day two when the prisoners, dissatisfied with the way the guards were treating them opted to rebel. The guards quashed the rebellion using a combination of physical abuse and psychological torment. In the ensuing days, their treatment of the prisoners became even worse. The reaction of the guards to the prisoners rebellion with violence and psychological abuse is similar to how Jack, the choir boys and the rest of his supporters meted violence on Piggy and Simon, two outcasts.

In both the Lord of the Flies and the Stanford Prison Experiment, the use of authority and power was invariably largely self-perpetuating and self-aggrandizing. The guards, whose power was the result of arbitrary and random assigning in a group of largely unremarkable youth, responded to any perceived threat from the prisoners with even more brutal levels of absolute power (Craig et al.). The relationship between the guards and the prisoners, even after the elimination of the threat, was now based on this new level of brutality. Further hostility, embarrassment, and physical abuse now began from this level. Brutality was so glorified amongst the guards that the guards who were perceived to be the most brutal from the previous shift would automatically assume positions of leadership within the group. The assumption of leadership within the guard circles based on the potential for brutality is arguably similar to Jack's ascension to power within the ranks of the young men trapped in the island in Lord of the Flies (Olsen 12).

The guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment were organized in shifts which had minimal if any, contact with each other (Haslam and Reicher). However, despite the fact that there was little to no contact between shifts and the fact that guards spent more than sixteen hours away from prison when not in active duty, the levels of aggression and the creative ways they came up to dehumanize the prisoners increased in spiraling fashion with each shift. This clearly designated power as the only precipitant of the behavioral changes in the guards. Any signs of humanity in the guards were regarded as weaknesses, and even the guards whose behavior change was not marked were complicit in the dehumanization through acceptance of the situation as normal and never attempting to question or contradict the actions of their brutal counterparts. Their conformity with the situation also represented a change in behavior attributable to their power role.

The change in behavior in the guards was spontaneous and occurred almost right from when they were conferred with the freedom to treat the prisoners as they pleased. For instance, from the first day of the experiment, the guards redefined the basic rights chorded to the prisoners including the most fundamental ones like time and condition of seeping and eating, as privileges that were going to be earned through obedience. The guards then went ahead arbitrarily cancel any other constructive activities that the prisoners were entitled to including watching television and reading. These activities were subsequently never reinstated. The privileges were intended to break resistance among the prisoners since the guards were aware that the prisoners had a numerical advantage over them (Craig et al.).

In Lord of the Flies,' Jack and his followers organize a feast while Ralph and his group are out attempting to start a fire in a bid to attract rescue efforts (Golding 74). The behavior of Jack and his followers constitutes a self-serving endeavor and exposes the kind of behavior change expected when power roles are applied to a group of people. It is worth noting that during their first moments in the island, the youth all work in concert under the democratic rule but the moment subversive elements led by Jack wrestle power and attain it absolutely, there is a marked change in behavior. Jack also undergoes a metamorphosis of sorts after he ascends to the leadership of his tribe. He becomes more violent and develops an insatiable hunger for hunting. His arrogance and ruthlessness see him ultimately descend into complete savagery taking pleasure at the sensation of the other boys living in fear of him. That change in behavior can be attributed to the powerful role he assumes of being in charge of his tribe.


The prisoners resorted to various coping strategies in reaction to the realization that they had lost arbitrary control over their lives and most of all their personal identity. Under the experiment, they were no longer treated as autonomous human beings but as numbers. Their initial reaction was disbelief at the unprecedented invasion of their privacy and the atmosphere of oppression that they were confined to. To cope with this, the prisoners attempted to rebel, and unlike Jack and his followers in Lord of the Flies,' this was a complete failure. They then resorted to working within the system by creating a grievance committee aimed at wiring their struggles, but when even this failed, they resorted to individual self-interests. The breakdown in cohesion was the biggest factor in their ultimate social disintegration that brought along with-it feelings of isolation and deindividualization (Craig et al.). The social integration led to the deprecation of some of the prisoners with a few prisoners being released early for various physical and psychological ailments that were directly attributable to the state of their existence at the time. The feelings transitioned to learned helplessness, and most of the sicknesses reported during the experiment were arguably a passive way of them of soliciting attention and help. Some of the prisoners became excessively obedient with some even taking the side of the authorities against some of their counterparts. Towards the end of the experiment, most of the prisoners had negative self-regard, and Zimbardo believed that it was as a result of them believing that the continued hostility towards them by the guards was justified because they deserved it (Craig et al.).

The prisoners' behavior was attributable to some process they underwent while in prison on account of their power role as prisoners. One of the most significant processes that occurred on account of their powerlessness while...

Have the same topic and dont`t know what to write?
We can write a custom paper on any topic you need.

Request Removal

If you are the original author of this essay and no longer wish to have it published on the website, please click below to request its removal: