Answers the Question
How do social influences contribute to extreme behaviours?
How it Began
Zimbardo (1973) was interested in finding out whether the brutality reported among guards in American prisons was due to the sadistic personalities of the guards or had more to do with the prison environment.
To study the roles people play in prison situations, Zimbardo converted a basement of the Stanford University psychology building into a mock prison. He advertised for students to play the roles of prisoners and guards for a fortnight. 21 male college students (chosen from 75 volunteers) were screened for psychological normality and paid $15 per day to take part in the experiment.
Participants were randomly assigned to either the role of prisoner or guard in a simulated prison environment. The prison simulation was kept as “real life” as possible. Prisoners were arrested at their own homes, without warning, and taken to the local police station. Zimbardo observed the behaviour of the prisoners and guards.
Within hours of beginning the experiment some guards began to harass prisoners. They behaved in a brutal and sadistic manner, apparently enjoying it. Other guards joined in, and other prisoners were also tormented.
The prisoners soon adopted prisoner-like behavior too. They talked about prison issues a great deal of the time. They ‘told tales’ on each other to the guards. They started taking the prison rules very seriously, as though they were there for the prisoners’ benefit and infringement would spell disaster for all of them. Some even began siding with the guards against prisoners who did not conform to the rules.
Tyranny – an unequal social system involving the arbitrary or oppressive use of power by one group or its agents over another
Zimbardo (1973) had intended that the experiment should run for a fortnight, but on the sixth day he closed it down. There was real danger that someone might be physically or mentally damaged if it was allowed to run on. After some time for the researchers to gather their data the subjects were called back for a follow-up, debriefing session.
After the prison experiment was terminated Zimbardo interviewed the participants. Here’s an excerpt:
‘Most of the participants said they had felt involved and committed. The research had felt “real” to them. One guard said, “I was surprised at myself. I made them call each other names and clean the toilets out with their bare hands. I practically considered the prisoners cattle and I kept thinking I had to watch out for them in case they tried something.” Another guard said “Acting authoritatively can be fun. Power can be a great pleasure.” And another: “… during the inspection I went to Cell Two to mess up a bed which a prisoner had just made and he grabbed me, screaming that he had just made it and that he was not going to let me mess it up. He grabbed me by the throat and although he was laughing I was pretty scared. I lashed out with my stick and hit him on the chin although not very hard, and when I freed myself I became angry.”’
Most of the guards found it difficult to believe that they had behaved in the brutalizing ways that they had. Many said they hadn’t known this side of them existed or that they were capable of such things. The prisoners, too, couldn’t believe that they had responded in the submissive, cowering, dependent way they had. Several claimed to be assertive types normally. When asked about the guards, they described the usual three stereotypes that can be found in any prison: some guards were good, some were tough but fair, and some were cruel.
What does this mean for Organization Development
According to Zimbardo and his colleagues, the Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrates the powerful role that the situation can play in human behaviour. Because the guards were placed in a position of power, they began to behave in ways they would not normally act in their everyday lives or in other situations. The prisoners, placed in a situation where they had no real control, became passive and depressed.
People will readily conform to the social roles they are expected to play, especially if the roles are as strongly stereotyped as those of the prison guards. The “prison” environment was an important factor in creating the guards’ brutal behavior (none of the participants who acted as guards showed sadistic tendencies before the study). Therefore, the roles that people play can shape their behavior and attitudes.
Despite some of the criticism, the Stanford Prison Experiment remains an important study in our understanding of how the situation can influence human behaviour.
Using situation influences for good
Could we, through a series of small wins, architect a “slow ascent into goodness, step by step”? And could such an experiment be run at a societal level?
We actually already know the answer:
For years, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) detachment in Richmond, Canada ran like any other law enforcement bureaucracy and experienced similar results: recidivism or reoffending rates ran at around 60%, and they were experiencing spiraling rates of youth crime. This forward-thinking Canadian detachment, led by a young, new superintendent, Ward Clapham, challenged the core assumptions of the policing system itself. He noticed that the vast majority of police work was reactive. He asked: “Could we design a system that encouraged people to not commit crime in the first place?” Indeed, their strategic intent was a clever play on words: “Take No Prisoners.”
Their approach was to try to catch youth doing the right things and give them a Positive Ticket. The ticket granted the recipient free entry to the movies or to a local youth center. They gave out an average of 40,000 tickets per year. That is three times the number of negative tickets over the same period. As it turns out, and unbeknownst to Clapham, that ratio (2.9 positive affects to 1 negative affect, to be precise) is called the Losada Line. It is the minimum ratio of positive to negatives that has to exist for a team to flourish. On higher-performing teams (and marriages for that matter) the ratio jumps to 5:1. But does it hold true in policing?
According to Clapham, youth recidivism was reduced from 60% to 8%. Overall crime was reduced by 40%. Youth crime was cut in half. And it cost one-tenth of the traditional judicial system.
There is power in creating a positive cycle like Clapham did. Indeed, HBR‘s The Power of Small Wins, recently explored how managers can tap into relatively minor victories to significantly increase the satisfaction and motivation of their employees. It is an observation that has been made as far back as the 1968 issue of HBR in an article by Frederick Herzberg titled, “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?”. That piece has been among the most popular articles atHarvard Business Review. His research showed that the two primary motivators for people were (1.) achievement and (2.) recognition for achievement.
The lesson here is to create a culture that immediately and sincerely celebrates victories. Here are three simple ways to begin:
1. Start your next staff meeting with five minutes on the question: “What has gone right since our last meeting?” Have each person acknowledge someone else’s achievement in a concrete, sincere way. Done right, this very small question can begin to shift the conversation.
2. Take two minutes every day to try to catch someone doing the right thing. It is the fastest and most positive way for the people around you to learn when they are getting it right.
3. Create a virtual community board where employees, partners and even customers can share what they are grateful for daily. Sounds idealistic? Vishen Lakhiani, CEO of Mind Valley, a new generation media and publishing company, has done just that at Gratitude Log.