Conformity To Social Roles Zimabardo’s Prison Study

March 4, 2021 - Paper 1 Introductory Topics in Psychology | Social Psychology

AO1: Description, Key Terms

Conformity to Social Roles Definition the parts individuals play as members of a social group, which meet the expectations of that situation.


Each social situation has its own social norms, an expected way for individuals to behave; these vary depending on the situation. For example joining a queue.

Individuals learn how to behave by looking at the social roles other people play in such situations and then conforming to them these are then learned and stored allowing for appropriate behaviour for any given situation.


Conformity to social roles therefore involves identification. Stronger than compliance, involving both public and private acceptance of behaviour and attitudes, it exists as long as the group does.

AO1: Description Research Into Conformity To Social Roles, Zimbardo 1973

Aim: To investigate the extent to which people would conform to the roles of guard and prisoner in a role-playing simulation of prison life.


  1. 21 male students were selected from 75 who had volunteered via a newspaper advert asking for participants in a study of prison life paying $15 p/d. (The 21 students were considered physically and mentally stable, mature and free from anti-social and criminal tendencies)
  2. Using random allocation, the 21 participants were divided into roles 10 guards and 11 prisoners. Zimbardo was the role of prison superintendent and Stanford University basement was converted into a mock prison.
  3. Prisoners Real police publically arrested the prisoners , they were then finger printed, stripped and deloused. Prisoners were dehumanised (removed of all their individual identity) by all wearing numbered smocks, nylon caps and a chain round one ankle.
  4. Guards The guards wore khaki uniforms, reflective sunglasses (to prevent eye contact) and were issued with handcuffs, keys and truncheons (physical punishment however was not permitted).
  5. 9 prisoners were places 3 to a cell and had a regular routine of work shifts, meals times etc
  6. Visiting times, parole board and disciplinary board were all established.
  7. Research was planned to run for 2 weeks.

Findings:  Guards and prisoners settled into their social roles quickly

  1. Guards “ became increasingly sadistic “ taunting the prisoners, giving them meaningless tasks to complete
  2. Prisoners “ attempted a rebellion early on but after it was crushed they became submissive and unquestioning of the guards behaviour (some even sided with the guards against any prisoner who protested). Prisoners even began to refer to themselves and each other by their prison number (showing deindividuation).
  3. After 36 hours, one prisoner was released because of fits of crying and rage. 3 more prisoners developed similar behaviours and were released soon after. A 5th prisoner with a rash as denied parole.
  4. The study was stopped after 6 days  “ zimbardo realised the extent of the harm that was occurring
  5. In post-experimental interviews, both guards and prisoners said they were surprised at the uncharacteristic behaviours they d shown.

Conclusions:It was considered that the participants€™ behaviour was due to situational (the prison setting) factors rather than dispositional (as no participants had demonstrated such character traits before the investigation).

Individuals readily conform to the social roles that were demanded by the situation, these roles only existed as long as the participants were in the prison setting.

AO3: Evaluation Of Zimbardo’s Research

Evaluation, AO3 of Zimbardo’s Research into Social Roles



(1) Point: Zimbardo’s study was conducted in a laboratory experiment and therefore, a strength of the study is that there was a high degree of control. Evidence: For example, Zimbardo was able to control many aspects of the study in terms of who were allocated the role of the guards/prisoners, the prisoners being arrested at their homes etc¦ Evaluation: This is a strength because the research can be seen to have high internal validity and there a cause and effect relationship can be established.


(1) Point: Zimbardo’s research can be criticised as lacking ecological validityEvidence: For example, the participants were placed in an unfamiliar artificial setting and were expected to carry out an artificial task (the prisoners knew that they were not actually in prison and so many researchers have stated that the prisoners and guards were just simply playing a game and were not actually buying into the roles. Evaluation: This is a weaknesses as the study is not reflective of the participants real life behaviour and therefore the findings regarding social roles from the study cannot be generalised beyond the artificial setting.


(2) Point: The study can be criticised on ethical grounds for not protecting the participants and not gaining full informed consent. Evidence: For example, many of the prisoners were reported to suffer from extreme stress throughout the experiment (some developed skin rashes and complaints characteristic of a stress response), in addition, the prisoners were arrested at their homes without giving consent for this to happen. Many of the prisoners reported embarrassment that their neighbours, family and friends has witnessed their ‘fake’ arrest. Evaluation: This is a weakness because, as stated in the BPS guidelines it is important that all participants are protected and leave an experiment in the same state in which they entered. Furthermore, participants should not be deceived in research as full informed consent must be obtained.

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