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The BBC Prison Study (2002) was a documentary series of an experiment designed by Steve Reicher and Alex Haslam. The study, originally labelled as ‘the Experiment’, sought to explore the consequences of imposing an unequal system of power on a group of people. There was concern about the study being a replication of the infamous Stanford prison experiment (1971), which, despite its insightful findings, was heavily criticised for being unethical. However, Reicher and Haslam assured that this study would be conducted more ethically.
The researchers wanted to find out more about how and why humans commit atrocities. In particular, they were keen to understand how power plays a role in crimes against humanity, such as genocide.
Before the BBC prison study, several notable experiments had been carried out in social psychology to help us understand what makes people commit ‘evil’ acts. Such experiments include:
Sherif’s Robbers Cave experiment (1954).
Milgram’s experiment on obedience (1961).
Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment (1971).
The BBC prison study went on to deepen our understanding of group psychology, systems of power, tyranny and inequality and is considered to be a key study in the field of social psychology.
The BBC prison study [...] examines when people accept inequality and when they challenge it. - bbcprisonstudy.org
Based on the understanding of human behaviour obtained from previous studies, researchers Reicher and Haslam sought to study the following questions:
‘When do people go along with oppressive groups? When do people act as a group to challenge oppression?’
To bring these questions to life, the researchers aimed to observe oppressive behaviour in a simulated prison setting. They aimed to look at not only the tyranny but also resistance.
After screening over 300 applicants that had applied to be participants, the researchers chose 15 men. These men were described as ‘decent’, namely that they did not have violent or vulnerable backgrounds.
Out of the 15 men, five were randomly selected as guards whilst the rest became prisoners. The researchers took care to ensure that both groups were psychologically similar so that any differences in group behaviour could be attributed to their group itself and not their personalities. Prisoners were told that guards were selected because they had certain characteristics, such as trustworthiness, even though this was not true.
The whole study was conducted in a setup resembling a prison with no windows. The prison consisted of a central common area for the prisoners with a separate room for guards to observe prisoners from. This study took the form of an experimental case study.
Prisoners had basic amenities in their cells and were given controlled access to a communal shower. Guards could put prisoners in solitary confinement cells if necessary.
Guards had their own quarters with better amenities and higher quality furniture. They also had access to an upper level from which they could look down on the Prisoners’ area. At the start of the study, the guards were informed that they had the power to make up the prison rules as they saw fit. The rules included the power to punish, withdraw privileges and put prisoners in isolation. However, they were told that they were not allowed to use physical violence.
The Guards also had keys and access to all prison areas. They wore uniforms and enjoyed better living conditions.
The researchers used a range of different data collection methods (triangulation) to track participants’ behaviours and motivations.
The researchers used a range of different data collection methods - called triangulation - to track participants’ behaviours and motivations.
All participants were constantly monitored through cameras and microphones.
Participants filled out daily questionnaires about their activities, perceptions and wellbeing.
Researchers collected saliva swabs daily to measure stress levels.
Researchers planned three interventions during the study as a way to impact group dynamics. Researchers did this by manipulating the following independent variables:
On the first day, an announcement was made telling prisoners that one prisoner with ‘guard-like’ qualities had the chance to be promoted to a guard. The idea was to make the participants believe the roles were permeable.
On day three, one prisoner was promoted to guard, and the rest of the prisoners were told there would be no more promotions. This created an impermeability of the roles as there would be no more systemic changes.
Prisoners were then told there were no real differences between them and the guards, but reassigning roles would be impractical. The idea was to question the legitimacy of the roles.
On day five, a new prisoner with the background as a Trade Unionist was added to the study. He used his skills to organise and negotiate collective action amongst the prisoners. However, he was withdrawn from the study the next day to prevent him from influencing the prisoners further.
The study ended early on the eighth day due to ethical reasons; since the design of the study had collapsed, researchers did not feel as if they were able to establish a new study design and hierarchy without the risk of distress, or even violence. Despite this, researchers noted the following findings.
Here are the findings of the BBC prison study after the first, second, and third planned intervention.
After the first planned intervention:
Once told that there could be a promotion from prisoner to guard, the prisoners did not work as a group. Instead, they worked individually, as they became interested in obtaining the promotion.
There was little to no group identification amongst the prisoners. There was no resistance to the system.
After the second planned intervention:
Once the promotion happened and the prisoners were told there are no differences between prisoners and guards, the prisoners began to identify as a group. They worked and socialised together, in order to implement change within their living conditions.
The same was not said for the guards, who did not show signs of solidarity and group identification. Their lack of group identity also caused high levels of stress and burnout as demonstrated by the daily saliva swabs.
The prisoners saw this and showed low regard for the guards’ authority. They began showing resistance to the system.
After the third planned intervention:
Once the Trade Unionists joined, the prisoners began challenging the guards and their powers.
One prisoner found a set of a guard’s keys and negotiated together with them for better prison conditions in exchange for the keys.
Prisoners collectively broke into the guard quarters and created their own ‘commune’ with their own set of rules. Many of the guards accepted this new system, hence the original design of the experimental case study had collapsed.
The study provided valuable insight into several different aspects of human behaviour. These are outlined below.
The study showed that group identification relied on an internalisation of the group role; namely, there is a difference between being told ‘you are a guard’ and between you thinking ‘I am a guard’.
It showed that simply being part of a group is not enough for internalising a role but that individuals must see the role as part of their identity. This is called social identification.
The prisoners were much more accepting of their roles when they were told that the roles were legitimate and permeable. When they were told the roles would not change and were not based on real differences, they began to question their roles and the system.
Shared identities can create consensual norms within groups. The prisoners’ group identification allowed them to negotiate and create their own structure. This suggests shared social identities are a good basis for organisation and holding group power.
On the other hand, the guards’ lack of group identification and solidarity led to the prisoners undermining their authority and leadership.
The study showed that tyranny can occur when groups fail to work together. If a group cannot collectively acknowledge its values and beliefs, it is more likely to accept alternatives, even if they are extreme. This could explain why the guards showed little resistance against the new ‘commune’.
The study, despite its useful applications to group behaviour, was criticised for several reasons. These are outlined below.
The participants went through extensive screening before the study and were monitored closely during the entire study.
There were ethical safeguards throughout the whole study, such as parademics, a 5-person ethical board and the option to withdraw from the study at any time
The study attempted to prevent long-term damage to the participants.
The study had useful applications regarding group behaviour, systems of power, authority and inequality.
The study is reliable as the procedure can be replicated.
The use of triangulation in data collection helps increase the validity of the findings.
There were still ethical concerns once the original design of the case study had collapsed.
The study has low ecological validity; the simulated prison setting was artificial and so any behaviour in the study may not happen in real life.
The behaviour could have arisen out of demand characteristics as the participants knew this was a study for research purposes.
The findings cannot be generalised to the wider population as it was androcentric; the participants were all male. The participants were all volunteers and so this is not representative of the population.
The BBC prison study lasted for 8 days. It ended early due to ethical concerns.
Yes, the BBC prison study contained 15 all-male participants.
In the BBC prison study, the prisoners overthrow the guards' system and created their own set of rules. Many guards accepted this new system.
The BBC prison study was an experimental case study. It sought to study when people go along with oppressive groups and when they act as a group to challenge oppression.
What was the aim of the BBC prison study?
The researchers aimed to observe oppressive behavior in a simulated prison setting.
How were the participants recruited?
They were recruited through a call for volunteers for the study.
What kind of study was the BBC prison study?
Experimental case study
What was explicitly prohibited for the Guards?
Physical violence was explicitly prohibited for the Guards.
Did anything happen amongst the prisoners when they were told there would be no more promotions and that there were no differences between them and the guards?
Yes; the Prisoners formed a strong group identification and began working together to implement changes in living conditions.
According to the researchers, why were the prisoners able to break into the guard's quarters and create their own 'commune'?
The guards had no group identification and solidarity, which is why they could not achieve goals and maintain their authority.
On application of the study what did the researchers state as a reason for tyranny to take place?
The guards could not work together, which is why tyranny took place.
Which theory did the independent variables in the study come from?
The independent variables came from Tajfel's Social Identity Theory (1978).
What were the applications of the study?
The study had useful applications regarding group behavior, systems of power, authority and inequality.
Why can the findings of the study not be generalised?
The findings cannot be generalized to the wider population as it was androcentric; the participants were all male. The participants were all volunteers and so this is not representative of the population.
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