• Namritha Anbarasan

Roles, Rules and Self

Power and Identity

I am still reeling from exploring the detailed account of the controversial Stanford Prison experiment conducted in 1971. It makes us take a step back and question our humanity and the extent of our behaviour towards others.

A simulated prison experiment planned for two weeks was prematurely rescinded after just 6 days. 5 of the participants were sent home early because they were hysterical and depressed. The aim was to study the psychological impact of imprisonment, on “normal and mentally stable” people for about two weeks, by examining the power of authority and compliance through differential roles and treatment.

A mock prison was set up in the basement of the Psychology Department at Stanford University. Male college students who volunteered to take part in the study were split equally and randomly assigned to take on the role as guards or as prisoners. Findings showed that creating an environment of group identity, deindividuation and dependence, amongst the “prisoners” and anonymity, control and power, amongst the “guards” drastically diminished the affective state and self-evaluation of all the participants of the study. The guards had become authoritarian and inhumane towards the prisoners, and the latter had become submissive and docile. Participants lost their sense of self and forgot where their role ended and where their inner self began.

Let’s discuss the relevance of this study in our lives. Despite criticism regarding the reliability of the study, it has posed an important question that is pertinent even today. Does conforming to roles make us lose our identity?

We hear and read about many cases where bystanders watched on silently as a theft or abuse happened right in front of their eyes. These onlookers may be caring and considerate people at home with their children or with their ailing parents. So, do they feel that they are not expected to react in such a situation as it has become common? Be glad that they aren’t the victim? Is it possible that these people have lost their sense of humanity in such scenarios, as a result of being silent on-lookers for eons? This study highlights this phenomenon that the situation we are in and the role given to us has the potential to make us lose our self-identity.

Being in a role over a period of time may result in us justifying our actions as a requirement of the said role and avoiding the responsibility for and consequences of our actions. We also tend to “assert the power inherent in that role.” I recall a troubling experience that I faced in Bangalore. My friend and I had mistakenly left the key on our parked vehicle while going shopping. When we returned, a group of policemen called us over and stated that they had the key. They demanded that we pay Rs. 500 to retrieve the key. Despite knowing English, the policemen spoke in Kannada as I was unfamiliar with it. They were up for no negotiation and blatantly said that the money had to be paid right away. The entitled demeanour of the policemen is still vivid in my mind.

When you see a child being bullied by a group, it is quite distinct who the leader is. He/She would be dominating and calling the shots. Others in the gang would follow and intimidate the child further. There could be a couple of those who step aside, don’t take active part in it. These “bystanders” in the group may be viewed as good or innocent by the victim mainly because the others are behaving in a negative way. As the good ones do not want to lose the loyalty of the gang, they are as much or more a part of the situation, by letting the others carry on without any interference. These power mechanics were observed in the prison study as well.

Stress and pressure experienced at the workplace may seem overbearing when it is constantly on our minds. You may discuss about work troubles with a colleague at office, while passing their cabin, during lunch break and over text once you go home. Engaging in such behaviour without or with less communication about other factors such as your personal life or the world around can result in you limiting yourself to the role of an employee, not only at work but otherwise as well. It then affects your qualities and abilities as an individual. This is inferred from the finding that lack of interaction about personal lives within the guards and prisoners led them to view the environment as even more oppressive.

When we are in a struggling environment, where even the basic needs are met through strenuous effort, it is viewed as a reward. A friend of mine working in a company, puts in long hours, skips meals for meetings, plans events but is hardly ever credited for his work. The company provides no paid holidays to its employees even after completing a year of work. For this friend, every small incentive given, such as receiving reimbursement for an official purchase, is viewed as a reward even though it is a basic criterion regularly met by other companies.

When individuals lose their self-identity and perceived control (over their lives) due to the power exerted on them, they engage in a series of techniques to cope with it. Onset they are unable to believe and accept reality, then they act out against those enforcing authority. Next they try to bring about a change by ensuring their troubles are heard by those in power. When these prove ineffective, it results in each man to himself. Once the unity amongst the group is broken, it results in isolation, emotional disturbance and excessive compliance. At the end of the study, prisoners had become emotionally inexpressive, inactive and dependent.

Individuals tend to underestimate the power of situation controls on their behaviour as it tends to be subtle. We seem to view ourselves in a favourable way and believe that we are kind considerate human beings at all times. But it is observed that just assigning roles and labels to normal people results in them engaging in behaviour unlike their self identity. Encouraging and maintaining a relationship with those around, being cared for and accepted by others, having the freedom and space to establish an identity for oneself, can help us lead lives closer to our self identity with minimal influence from external factors.

#power #identity #authority #self #roles #compliance #situation #behvaiour


Haney, C., Banks, C., & Zimbardo, P. (1973). A Study of Prisoners and Guards in a Simulated Prison. Naval Research Reviews.

Ratnesar, R. (2011, August/September). The Menace Within. Stanford Magazine. Retrieved October 5, 2018.

Zimbardo, P. G. (1972). Pathology of Imprisonment. Society,9(6), 4-8. doi:10.1007/bf02701755


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