Psychology of behavior is a subject that aims to determine the reasons and consequences of human actions based on attitudes, thoughts, beliefs, and feelings. As a result of the Stanford prison experiment, Philip Zimbardo concluded that the situation affects the behavior of a person more than internal features. It showed that the role and duties of an individual are powerful instruments that can change normal behavior and views on the outside environment and people.
The Stanford prison experiment is a well-known psychological experiment that was conducted in 1971 by the American psychologist Zimbardo. It was a psychological study of a person’s reaction to the restriction of freedom, the conditions of prison life, and the impact of an imposed social role on behavior. The prison experiment was performed in one of the corridors of the university. The prisoners were placed in three small cells where the only furniture left was a bed, which shows how Zimbardo wanted to create the most uncomfortable conditions for participants. Consequently, people quickly lost confidence. Prisoners were given numbers instead of being called by their names, which added to the degrading situation. Stockings were placed on people’s heads to hide the hair, creating an effect of impersonality. The study was paid for by the US Navy in order to explain the conflicts in its correctional facilities and in the US Marine Corps (Snow).
Participants were recruited by an ad in the newspaper, and they were offered 15 dollars a day for the two weeks of participation in the “prison simulation.” Out of 70 people who responded to the announcement, Zimbardo and his team chose 24 young men whom they found most healthy and psychologically stable. All of them were college students. The group was randomly divided into “prisoners” and “guards.” Interestingly, prisoners later thought that the guards were taken for height, but in fact, they were honestly drawn by chance, throwing a coin, and between the two groups there was no objective difference in physical data. The conditional prison was arranged on the basis of the Department of Psychology of Stanford (Snow).
The first day was relatively calm, but on the second day, a riot erupted. The guards volunteered for overtime work and, without guidance from the researchers, suppressed the insurgency while attacking prisoners with fire extinguishers. After this incident, the guards tried to separate the prisoners and set them apart, choosing the “good” and “bad,” and making them think that there were “informants” in their ranks. These measures had a significant effect, and thereafter no large-scale disturbances occurred. According to Zimbardo’s consultants, former prisoners, this tactic was similar to that used in real American prisons. In the course of the experiment, several guards turned more and more into sadists, especially at night when it seemed to them that the cameras were turned off. The experimenters claimed that about one in three guards showed real sadistic inclinations. Many guards were upset when the experiment was interrupted ahead of time (Snow).
The experiment has proven that conformity and social roles assigned to people are powerful enough to change one’s previous behavior, which illustrates how the social system serves as a framework for human functioning. The society is a special type of social system that has reached the highest level of self-sufficiency in relation to its environment, which ensures the stability of relations of mutual exchange and the ability to control interchange in the interests of its functioning. Society, from the point of view of the theory of social action, is not a collection of people who act as the external environment of social systems but a system of structured order (Newman).
Structural functionalism is a scientific approach based on the consideration of society as a system, internally differentiated entity parts of which are structural elements that contribute to the maintenance of the system and its reproduction. As social structures, any stable patterns of human activity are considered. The contribution of each social structure to the reproduction of the social order, its positive role in the social system, is the function of the given structure. Functionality, utility for a social system of any actions, determines their fixation as elements of the system. The logic of the original concept determines the strategy of sociological research as a structural-functional analysis (Newman). Observing any social phenomenon, the sociologist aspires to reveal its functions and, therefore, give the functional explanation of the fact of its existence.
In this case, universal latent functions are elements that play a huge role in the socialization of the individual. Becoming a participant in economic or political institutions, a person must correspond to a certain set of status-role prescriptions. In the system of institutional interactions, norms, the existence of sanctions, and the importance of institutions for solving social problems, individuals receive the main life lessons, although neither their partners in the interaction nor the people themselves can set any special educational tasks. It is formed by the procedure itself, namely by the regulatory mechanisms of everyday life which it receives in the course of routine institutional interactions (Newman). Furthermore, the importance of such functioning in the formation of the spiritual image of a person is critical to the human individuality.
Overall, conformity and social behavior are powerful enough to change people. Even in cases of severe difference, individuals will adjust to the environment. The prison experiment has proven how a role can become a force in itself. In the end, human behavior and duties in relation to others determine social fluctuations and shifts.
Newman, David. Sociology: Exploring the Architecture of Everyday Life. SAGE Publications, 2013.
Snow, Nancy. Virtue as Social Intelligence: An Empirically Grounded Theory. Routledge, 2010.