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Rethinking the Psychology of Tyranny

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Rethinking the Psychology of Tyranny

Research on the psychology of tyranny has been used to explain why historical events such as the genocide of the Jews in World War II. Research in this area also seeks to understand how tyranny asserts and maintains power in social organisations, such as prisons, schools, and the workplace.

Reicher and Haslam: rethinking the psychology of tyranny

Although punishment is an essential component of crime prevention, research has shown that punishment must be justified for rehabilitation to occur (to prevent someone from committing a crime again).

Tyranny occurs when a group or actor in power enforces strict rules to maintain that power, usually through an unfair system that actively oppresses those without power.

Tyranny exists in dictatorship countries or in the case of a court sentencing someone to life in prison for committing petty theft. In this hypothetical situation, the court could use that person as an example to prevent others from repeating the same behaviour.

Rethinking the Psychology of Tyranny Prison Tower Guard StudySmarterPrison tower guard, Flaticon

The aim of rethinking the psychology of tyranny study was to identify factors that affected the group dynamics in inferior-superior power relations and investigate if these power relations could be switched. The study attempted to carry out similar research to Zimbardo; however, the research design was adjusted to be ethical.

The studies also differed in that Zimbardo wanted to find out if people conform in prisons. This study, on the other hand, was interested in conformity to tyranny in different settings characterised by power differentials between groups.

Reicher and Haslam (2006) study

First, we will outline the rethinking of the psychology of tyranny: BBC Prison Study (Reicher and Haslam, 2006). Reicher and Haslam (2006) recruited 15 males:

  • These were allocated into five groups of three who were matched in terms of personality variables that were indicators of tyranny.

  • Overall, they had a range of ages, social classes and ethnicity.

  • From each group, one person was randomly allocated as a prison guard and the other two prisoners.

Researchers took a series of psychometric tests every day to measure well-being and stress. In terms of analysis, the variables measured were:

  1. Social: social identification, awareness of cognitive alternatives and rightwing authoritarianism (RWA).
  2. Organisational: compliance with rules and organisational citizenship.
  3. Clinical: self-efficacy and depression.

RWA is a personality trait that suggests people easily conform to rules and acceptable behaviours authoritative figures determine.

Researchers took saliva samples (physiological samples) from every participant to measure cortisol levels, which indicate stress. The study looked like a prison, the purpose of which was not to mimic a prison and to create a natural environment that creates unequal power relations between groups (prisoners and prison guards). The study took a time series approach. The researchers introduced interventions at different time points of the study.

Rethinking the Psychology of Tyranny Prisoner Guard StudySmarterPrisoner and prison guard, Flaticon

Types of Interventions

Guards were told they were given this role based on a pre-selection test. The test identified them as reliable and trustworthy. The guards were then told the pre-selection assessments might not be entirely correct. On the third day, guards (and prisoners) were told that prisoners might have a promotion to guard if they identified an inmate who should be suitable.

On the sixth day, the experimenters told the guards and prisoners there was no difference between the groups, which could not be changed now regardless. Upon realising promotion was no longer a possibility, the prisoners who adjusted their behaviour showed strong social identity instead and attempted to change the system.

This research stage was characterised by permeability, the idea that groups could change.

Prison guards and inmates were told that they found no differences between guards and prisoners after observations. There was no longer a legitimate group division because it was originally thought that prison guards got their role because they were reliable and trustworthy. However, researchers thought that this was no longer the case.

Cognitive Alternatives

A new prisoner was added to the study. The prisoner had experience working in a trade union, and the researchers thought his experience could change the dynamics in prison. The purpose of this participant was to make other prisoners challenge the existing regime by challenging the inequality between prisoners and prison guards, which increased insecurity.

The purpose of this was to make prisoners think the regime was illegitimate and changeable.

The study was an experimental case study in a recording study. Researchers recorded all participants’ behaviour and conversations throughout the entire study. The study was supposed to be carried out for ten days but was stopped after eight.

Systems, Rules, and Roles

The researchers instructed the prison guards to make and maintain rules to keep prisoners in line. However, they had to maintain human rights, and their rules could not include or induce violence. The prisoners were given uniforms and identity numbers (creating a prison environment).

During the phases of the study, the measures were taken almost daily. The prison guards were treated better than the prisoners (better living and food conditions), the purpose of which was to increase the power-dynamic differences between groups. During the sixth day of the experiment, the guards’ regime broke down; they did not show shared social identities.

As a result, prisoners and guards created a new system supposed to equalise power relations. This new system was ineffective as it failed to punish participants when they did not do their tasks or broke rules. Some of the members wanted to form a new, stricter system. They then proposed a hierarchical system, and the study was stopped (due to the belief it was not working).

Reicher and Haslam (2006): findings

The researchers analysed the study’s results in two phases.

Phase 1 results

Social identification was initially higher in the first two days in prison guards. However, this dramatically reduced in the following days. During this period, social identification increased in prisoners. Self-efficacy was higher in guards at the start of the experiment. By day 3, this was higher in inmates. This trend remained on day six but it was significantly lower.

Cognitive alternatives stayed consistent in guards throughout the study. However, this gradually increased in inmates from day 1 to day 6. This measures whether participants thought about alternative options to the existing rules/regime. For example, whether the prisoners could have more power than the guards.

There were several other results as well:

More Phase 1 ResultsDescription
Compliance with rules the analysis showed guards’ compliance scores did not significantly differ across the time points. However, prisoners’ compliance scores did reduce substantially.
Organisational citizenship the guards were always more willing to engage in behaviour that supported the regime (rules guards had formed). Throughout the study, prisoners’ likelihood of doing these behaviours decreased.
Depression During the pre-test, the overall mean scores showed higher depression scores in prisoners than guards. Prisoners depression scores were significantly reduced throughout the study. However, prison guards depression scores increased throughout the study (although this finding was non-significant). This phase was characterised by rejecting inequality.

Phase 2 results

After the initial regimes collapse, the new one formed. Guards who wanted to form a new, stricter regime had higher authoritarian scores. Authoritarian scores refer to how much a person favours enforcing strict obedience to an authoritative figure. By day 8 of the experiment, the guards’ (strict) views were accepted by the majority of participants.

The researchers suggested that this was because participants’ RWA scores were increasing throughout the study.

This phase’s results are characterised by accepting inequality.

Reicher and Haslam (2006): summary of findings

Social identity is important in maintaining shared norms and values in groups, and this encourages cohesion within the group, increasing their strength. When these groups fail, tyranny becomes a problem. The results suggest that people become willing to accept alternative options when a social group cannot provide order or a working, effective system. It can happen even if they initially thought of the social structure negatively.

In addition, when social structures break down, people supporting democracy are less likely to defend it against tyranny. This finding suggests that tyranny is a group process rather than an individualistic one and relies more on a failed group than a cohesive one.

Reicher and Haslam (2006) evaluation

The strengths of rethinking the psychology of tyranny (Reicher & Haslam, 2006) study include improving on past ethical issues. The study ensured ethical research guidelines in psychology were being followed. This has been breached in previous findings such as Zimbardo. When the researchers thought that the ethical standards could be breached the study was stopped.

Although the study was not high in ecological validity (carried out in an artificial environment), this did not affect the validity of the results. The study did not intend to mimic a prison but the unequal power relations in prisons between prisoners and prison guards. The researchers did not take part in the experiment. This means that they could not manipulate/influence participants’ behaviour. This is called investigator effects.

The weaknesses of rethinking the psychology of tyranny (Reicher & Haslam, 2006) study include demand characteristics. As the participants knew they were being recorded, this may have affected their behaviour. This can reduce the validity of the findings. When participants know that they are being observed they may act in a socially desirable way. Participants may act accordingly to how they think the researchers want them to.

The study used group analysis; from the results, individual differences cannot be identified. The study was androcentric, as it was only carried on males. The results found cannot be generalised to women. Female conformity to tyranny may be different from males which reduces the results’ generalisability.


Rethinking the Psychology of Tyranny - Key takeaways

  • Tyranny is where one group or agent in power enforces strict rules to maintain said power, usually through an unfair system that actively oppresses those without power.
  • Research in tyranny attempts to understand how tyranny enforces and maintains power in social organisations such as prisons, schools, and workplaces.
  • Reicher and Haslam (2006) carried out an experimental case study on 15 males to identify what factors affected whether participants accepted or rejected inequality.
  • The strengths of the study include that the low ecological validity likely did not affect the validity of the results.
  • The weaknesses of the study include that individual differences cannot be identified from group analysis, and the study was androcentric.

Frequently Asked Questions about Rethinking the Psychology of Tyranny

Reicher and Haslam (2006) can be described as an insight into the behaviours of those under tyrannical rule to identify what factors may affect group dynamics when an inferior-superior power relation exists. The Reicher and Haslam (2006) study used an experimental case study design. The study took a time-series approach to observe 15 males’ behaviour when adding different interventions to the research. 

The results suggest:

  • When a social group cannot provide order or a working, effective system, people become willing to accept alternative options. This can happen even if they initially thought of the social structure negatively.
  • In addition, when social structures break down, people supporting democracy are less likely to defend it against tyranny. 

Research on the psychology of tyranny has been used to explain why historical events such as the genocide of Jewish people during World War II happened. Research in this area also attempts to understand how tyranny enforces and maintains power in social organisations, such as prisons, schools, and workplaces. 

Reicher and Haslam (2006) concluded that tyranny is a group process rather than an individualistic one, relying on a failed group rather than the group dynamic itself.

The ideas of rethinking the psychology of tyranny are:

  • Tyranny is a group process (specifically a failed group).
  • There are certain traits such as authoritativeness that are related to tyranny.
  • People may give in to tyranny if social structures no longer function. 

Final Rethinking the Psychology of Tyranny Quiz

Question

Who carried out research on rethinking the psychology of tyranny?

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Answer

Reicher and Haslam (2006) in collaboration with BBC carried out research on rethinking the psychology of tyranny. 

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Question

Which study’s findings were Reicher and Haslam (2006) using a template of? 

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Answer

Reicher and Haslam attempted to build on the Zimbardo (1971) Stanford prison experiment. 

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Question

Was ecological validity a problem in the study? 

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Answer

No.

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Question

What research design did Reicher and Haslam (2006) use?

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Answer

The study used an experimental case study. 

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Question

What approach did the researchers use to introduce the interventions in the research? 

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Answer

The study took a time series approach to introduce new interventions at different points in the study.

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Question

What type of variables were measured using psychometric tests in the Reicher and Haslam (2006) study? (Select multiple answers.)

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Answer

Social.

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Question

During phase 1 of the study, did inmates’ cognitive alternatives scores increase? 

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Answer

Yes.

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Question

Was there an increase in guards’ compliance with rules throughout the study? 

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Answer

Yes.

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Question

Was there a shift in social identification trends between guards and prisoners? 

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Answer

Yes.

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Question

Which phase of the results were characterised by accepting inequality?

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Answer

Phase 2

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Question

In the Phase 2 results, what type of people wanted to form a new, stricter regime? 

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Answer

Guards with higher authoritarian scores wanted to form a new, stricter regime. 

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Question

How did the researchers explain why most participants were willing to accept the stricter regime? 

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Answer

The researchers suggested that this was because they found participants’ RWA scores to increase throughout the study.  

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Question

What could be concluded from the Reicher and Haslam (2006) study?

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Answer

The study concluded that:

  • The results suggest that people become willing to accept alternative options when a social group cannot provide order or a working, effective system. 
    • This can happen even if they initially thought of the social structure negatively. 
  • When social structures break down, people supporting democracy are less likely to defend it against tyranny. 

Show question

Question

Do the results of the Reicher and Haslam (2006) study suggest that tyranny is a group or collective process?

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Answer

Group process.

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Question

What are the weaknesses of the study?

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Answer

The weaknesses of the study are: 

  • Observer bias may have influenced the results.
  • Individual differences cannot be identified from group analysis.
  • The study was androcentric. 

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