Chapter 10: Social Influences on the Development of Human Potential

Social Roles and Bystander Apathy

Social Roles


Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not between states nor between social classes nor between political parties, but right through every human heart, through all human hearts.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

The line between good and evil is permeable and almost anyone can be induced to cross it when pressured by situational forces.

Philip Zimbardo


Zimbardo’s Prison Study

A second famous and controversial social psychology research project demonstrating the power of the situation over the power of the person was conducted by Philip Zimbardo. It is often referred to as “The Stanford Prison Experiment” (Haney, Banks, & Zimbardo, 1973). Like Milgram, Zimbardo started with an important existential question: “What happens when good people are put into an evil place? Do they triumph or does the situation dominate their past history and morality?” ( Like Milgram, Zimbardo addressed the combined issues of internal and external validity by attempting to bring the essential features of the natural environment into the laboratory. Like Milgram, this was accomplished through an ingenious deception strategy implemented with enormous attention to detail. Although this research took place over 45 years ago, it remains important and, unfortunately as you will see, prescient.

Newspaper advertisements offered male college students money to participate in an all day, two-week study taking place before the beginning of the fall semester. The study was described as a “psychological study of prison life.” Approximately 100 students responded to the advertisement. Those with prior arrest records, medical, or psychological problems were eliminated. Of the remaining students, 24 were selected. Eighteen would eventually be randomly divided into groups of nine guards and nine prisoners. The other six constituted replacements in the event anyone dropped out over the two-week period.

The study began for the nine original “prisoners” with a surprise arrest in their homes! The students went through the humiliating process of being searched and handcuffed before being read their Miranda right to remain silent. They were driven in a police car to the station where they were formally arrested with mug shots and fingerprints being taken. The simulated prison was situated in the basement of the Stanford University Psychology building. Prisoners were strip searched, issued smocks and stocking caps, and assigned ID numbers prior to being placed in their cells by the guards. Each cell held three prisoners and there was a separate cell to be used for solitary confinement. Those students assigned the role of guard were simply instructed to maintain law and order, refrain from violence, and not let any of the prisoners escape. They were told to refer to the prisoners by their ID numbers and not their names. The guards were issued military styled uniforms, darkened sunglasses, whistles, and night sticks. These procedures and details were designed to foster a sense of powerlessness in the prisoners while empowering the guards.

I suspect you will agree that just as Milgram captured the essence of being placed in a situation where obedience to authority could occur, Zimbardo captured the essence of the experience of being arrested and going to jail with his procedures. That is, both researchers manipulated the independent variable in such a way as to permit determining cause and effect relationships under controlled laboratory conditions that are likely to apply outside the laboratory. There is an important difference, however, in how their independent variables were manipulated. Part of Milgram’s manipulation included the responses of the confederate learner. These were scripted and could be controlled. For example, the learner could report having a heart condition or not. The learner could bang on the wall and scream or remain silent throughout. An important part of the independent variable manipulation in Zimbardo’s study was the behavior of the guards and prisoners toward each other. In Zimbardo’s research, there were no confederates, making scripting and control impossible. He placed students in an unbalanced relationship with their assigned roles determining their behavior. The prison study was unusual in this way; it relied upon an independent variable manipulation involving reciprocal determinism. The behavior of the prisoner affected the behavior of the guard which affected the behavior of the prisoner, and so on. There are also important differences in the ways in which the two investigators measured their dependent variables. Milgram developed a sensitive and precise measure of obedience with the graded switches on the shock generator. Zimbardo’s dependent variables were not assessed in a systematic way. Zimbardo could not know how the guards and prisoners would react to their roles. He videotaped the entire experiment, informing the subjects that their behavior was being recorded.

Whereas the first day was relatively calm, on the second day several of the prisoners started to rebel. Guards used fire extinguishers to quell the rebellion. All the prisoners had been instructed that they were allowed to leave at any point. One of the prisoners displayed severe signs of distress on the second day, left, and was replaced. Four more would leave before circumstances resulted in early termination of the experiment after only six days. The guards were becoming increasingly brutal and the experimenters feared for the safety and psychological well-being of the prisoners. Personality tests were administered to all applicants as part of the screening process. Results on these tests were not predictive of which guards became the most abusive or, in some instances, cruel. None of the guards left the experiment.

Zimbardo personally conducted debriefing sessions. He emphasized how the subjects were selected because of their initial physical and mental health. They should not feel their behavior was indicative of any psychological disturbance; it resulted from their assigned roles in the Stanford “prison.” Zimbardo took advantage of the debriefing session to discuss how they interpreted their roles as guards and prisoners, the choices they made, and how they might have done things differently. Although many of the participants reported being severely distressed during and immediately after the experiment, subsequent comprehensive interviews indicated no lasting disturbances. In their final follow-up interviews, the majority of the students indicated that the experiment proved to be a valuable learning experience. (Zimbardo, 2007, p. 239).


Watch the following video of the Stanford prison experiment. Please be cautioned that some of the scenes include violent behavior:

Forty-five years after the Stanford Prison Experiment, Zimbardo (2007) wrote a provocative book entitled The Lucifer Effect:Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. In the preface, he reaches the same conclusion as Milgram: “One of the dominant conclusions of the Stanford Prison Experiment is that the pervasive yet subtle power of a host of situational variables can dominate an individual’s will to resist.” Zimbardo compares the behavior of the guards in the prison experiment with the behavior of American soldiers in the Abu Ghraib prison thirty years later. Photographs of the two events are eerily and disturbingly similar. Zimbardo served as an expert witness on behalf of one of the perpetrators of the violence in the Iraqi prison. He argued that “The allegation that these immoral deeds were the sadistic work of a few rogue soldiers, so called bad apples, is challenged by examining the parallels that exist in the situational forces and psychological processes that operated in that prison with those in our Stanford prison” (Zimbardo, 2007, Preface). Rather, he concludes “These reports, chaired by generals and former high-ranking government officials, made evident that the military and civilian chain of command had built a “bad barrel” in which a bunch of good soldiers became transformed into “bad apples” (Zimbardo, 2007, Preface).

Bystander Apathy


All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

Edmund Burke


During the debriefing sessions, Zimbardo expressed his displeasure with his own behavior during the Stanford Prison Experiment. “I had tried to contain physical aggression, but I had not acted to modify or stop the other forms of humiliation when I should have. I was guilty of the sin of omission- the evil of inaction-of not providing adequate oversight and surveillance when it was required” (Zimbardo, 2007, p. 181). He considered himself guilty of bystander apathy, the failure to assist an individual in need.

Zimbardo was almost definitely aware of the then recent social psychological research conducted by James Darley and Bibb Latané. They demonstrated that the likelihood of helping someone was related to the number of others present at the time (Darley& Latané, 1968; 1970; Latané & Darley, 1968) but not related to personality (Darley& Latané, 1970). In a laboratory experiment involving deception, subjects heard another student apparently undergoing an epileptic seizure. Subjects were told that they were one of two or one of six subjects involved in the research. That is, they were the only one that could help or there were four others who could also provide assistance. When they thought they were the only one, 85% of the subjects offered help; only 31% did when they thought there were four others available (Darley& Latané, 1968). The inverse relationship between the number of people present and the likelihood of providing assistance was described as the social diffusion effect . A comprehensive review found that this relationship has been repeatedly replicated since the original findings (Hudson & Bruckman, 2004).

The likelihood of providing assistance to a person experiencing an emergency may be described as a flowchart (Darley& Latané, 1970).  First, the individual has to attend to the event. When there are many others present, it might not even be noticed. For example, the same authors previously found that smoke coming from the vent was noticed in 5 seconds when a subject was alone but took 20 seconds when two or three other subjects were present (Latané & Darley, 1968).  Second, even if the event is noticed, it might not be interpreted as an emergency. This might be an example of the type of conformity displayed in Asch’s studies. That is, if others do not act as though the situation is an emergency, this could influence one’s own interpretation of the circumstances.  Third, if the situation is considered an emergency, the number of others present will influence one’s perceived responsibility (i.e., diffusion of responsibility). Fortunately, it has been found that subjects are likely to respond to serious emergencies even if others are present and not responding (Fischer, Greitemeyer, Pollozek, & Frey, 2006).  Fourth, If one feels personally responsible, it is necessary to consider courses of action and act accordingly. This flowchart may remind you of the five problem-solving stages described in Chapter 7: (1) general orientation; (2) problem definition and formulation; (3) generation of alternatives; (4) decision making; (5) verification (Goldfried and Davison, 1976, p. 187). One may act directly or indirectly by notifying the appropriate authorities.


Watch the following video for a demonstration of the bystander effect:




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Psychology Copyright © by Jeffrey C. Levy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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