Continuing this week’s discussion of group polarization: people sometimes move to a more extreme version of their initial opinion owing to a power structure within a group, even when holding a more moderate opinion has no overt negative consequences.
Again the main driving force is likely to be a desire to be favorably perceived by group members (in this case people of power) and one-upmanship among equals. The Stanford prison experiment and the BBC prison experiment exemplify social comparison processes within a power structure to the extreme. The Stanford prison experiment is a study that took place at Stanford University August 14-20, 1971. It was funded by the US Office of Naval Research and was conducted by psychologist Philip Zimbardo. Twenty-four male students were recruited for the study. They were assigned random roles as prisoners and guards in an enclosure in the basement of the psychology building at the university. Both groups adapted their roles far beyond Zimbardo’s expectations. One-third of the guards became truly sadistic dictators, whereas many of the prisoners tolerated psychological abuse. For example, as a way of punishment the guards would remove the prisoners’ mattresses and not allow them to empty the bucket in their cell that they used as a toilet. What was most surprising perhaps was that in spite of the fact that everyone was aware that it was an experiment and not real life, the prisoners willingly abused and harassed fellow prisoners when requested to do so by the guards. Even when the prisoners had lost all monetary compensation and incentive to remain study participants, they didn’t quit the study (with the exception of one prisoner who quit early on). Zimbardo shut down the experiment prematurely owing to its questionable moral status.
Zimbardo subsequently argued that since the roles of guards and prisoners were arbitrarily assigned, the actions were unlikely to be the result of the students’ personality traits but were situationally determined.
The study has been criticized for its lack of rigorous methodology, and a partial replication of the experiment sponsored by BBC and conducted by psychologists Alex Haslam and Steve Reicher in 2006 appeared to show that internalized group membership can trigger tolerance, obedience and tyranny but also resistance. People engage in tyranny after they feel that they identify with the group, if tyranny is the agenda of the most powerful members of the group. The less powerful in the group have a desire to be favorably perceived by the powerful, and move their viewpoints in that direction. Further, because the viewpoints of the most powerful and cruelest among the guards are considered desirable, one-upmanship drives in-group opinions to further extremes.
Tomorrow I will look at persuasive argumentation, a second process that can polarize groups.