ENACTING A ROLE
DAVID MYERS, in his textbook Social Psychology, writes that in any “career, as teacher, soldier, or businessperson, we enact a role that shapes our attitudes.”1
In 1971 at Stanford University, Philip Zimbardo was trying to understand the brutality that often erupted in prisons. He speculated that the environment and the “institutional roles” of the prison guards might be a stronger influence on their behavior than who they were as people. To prove his idea, Zimbardo knew that he had to set up an experiment that used subjects who had never seen the inside of a prison. He also knew that he had to randomly assign subjects to play the roles of guards and prisoners. Using this methodology, any brutality that erupted in the experiment could be attributed to the environment and the roles enacted.
In the basement of the psychology department, Zimbardo and his colleagues constructed a realistic prison. College students volunteered for the experiment. With the “flip of a coin,” students were assigned to be either guards or prisoners. The guards were given uniforms and job descriptions. The prisoners were told that within the next week a police car would arrive at their apartment sometime in the middle of the night. They would be handcuffed and then taken to the prison, where they would be photographed, fingerprinted, given prison garb to wear, and put behind bars.