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Conformity and Obedience: Yielding to Others
Were the soldiers involved in the tortures at Abu Ghraib prison in March 2003 in Iraq somehow "evil" or "bad apples"? Would you or I have done what they did?
Abu Ghraib: Dog Collar on Prisoner  Man with Electrodes  Abu Ghraib: Prisoner Threatened by Dogs

Video Excerpt from CBC The Big Picture | The Human Behaviour Experiments

A. Conformity

Question: Would I uphold my own beliefs when others around me disagree strongly?

[Asch]Asch's Conformity Experiment: 1950s

[Asch Experiment]

[Conformity in Group]


  • Group Size
  • Group Unanimity

B. Obedience

Question: Would I torture someone if I was told to do so by someone in authority?

Video of Experiment
(5 min., Dutch subtitles)

[S Milgram]         [Experiment Set-up]      [Shock Generator]
[Milgram Results]

Traditional interpretation: Human beings are willing to follow authority even to the point of harming other people unjustly

Recently social psychologists question this: (a) there were multiple variations in Milgram's experiment in which people disobeyed and (b) there may be issues of social identification and interpersonal bonding that may also need to be included in how we interpret these results, i.e., people were trying to do the right thing and struggled with their decision.

    C. The Power of the Situation

Question: Can my personality and ways of acting be changed by new circumstances?
      The Stanford Prison Simulation (August 1971) -- Slide Show
  • Philip ZimbardoDesigned by Stanford University social psychologist, Philip Zimbardo.
  • 24 physically healthy & psychologically well-adjusted students were randomly assigned to play the roles of either "prisoners" or "guards" in a very realistic "prison" set up in the basement of the Psychology Dept. building.
  • Scheduled to run for 2-weeks, the experiment was terminated after 5 days
    • The "prisoners" and "guards" very quickly entered into their respective roles.
    • Guards became increasingly sadistic as they humiliated and punished prisoners.
    • Within 36 hours, the first "prisoner" began showing serious psychological side-effects including crying and withdrawal.
  • Explanations
    • Social Roles adopted by students
    • "The Power of the Situation" overwhelmed the available psychological resources these students had to maintain behavioral standards.
Phil et al. 2013

This page was originally posted on 11/10/03 and last updated on April 13, 2014