The 1971 prison experiment launched by Stanford University (SPE) has been claimed a stigma in the history of social psychology. Awaken by the lesson, people began to think about the relationship among identity, psyche and behavior. However, that is not the end of the research. Indeed, when the experiment was reopened, the situation proved much more complicated. In 2002, aided by BBC, another group of psychologists re-investigated into the aegis between identity and behavior.
Different from the previous one, neither the prisoners nor the guards were informed what they could do in their situation. Surprisingly, the experiment brought a much more divergent scenario, which has become a model of a community’s formation and dissolution.
Contrary to the guards’ power abuse towards the prisoners as revealed in the SPE, during the experiment, they were generally obstructed by their own morality while prisoners showed their solidarity in their struggle against the guards (ibid). As prisoners’ group expanded, they formed their community, collaborating and managing it together. Nonetheless, dissidents and dissent are pervasive over the the specific agenda. This process is similar to the building of a democratic society where the essential issue is no longer to defend the group but to pursue more benefit for the community. However, failing to manage the dissent and impede the gradual collapse of group identity, the community splintered and eventually foundered; the prisoners were again in the charge of the guards.
This surprising phenomenon has been caught by academics who have interest in the interdisciplinary study of psychology and politics. Amid it has the discussion around identity politics been sparked which thinks about the conflict and the stability of a society in terms of group identity.
It hasn’t been long since I was ushered into this area. It emphasizes the self-cognizance of individuals in a society that leads to the conflict of inter- or intra-groups and from which the management can be found. To illustrate this more clearly, I draw an analogy to George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Although it has been regarded as a critique of communism and totalitarianism, as far as I’m concerned, it might be interpreted from another perspective.
I attribute the establishment of the animal farm and its disruption to the formation and collapse of their group identity. In the beginning, repressed by the farmer, animals all perceive themselves as the victim so that they find the common identity, which is the most consequential one in that circumstance. Driven by their shared wish to sabotage the reign of the farmer and oust him, they are united together and soon, they form their own society.
However, during the process of their coordination, the whole community is mainly subject to the three pigs. All members have to behave in accordance with their direction which is against the fundamental principle that everyone is entitled to equal right over community’s affairs. Frustrated by this, the positiveness inspired by the shared group identity fades away and is replaced by the division and segregation. Finally, the group collapses into instability and commotion, which provides the farmer the chance to seize power again.
It proves to be the failure of communism and totalitarianism. However, together with the prison experiments and other relevant research, it sheds light onto the correlation between identity and the stability and the prosperity of a society. From psychological viewpoint, how people cognize themselves within a society has a significant influence on their attitude towards the group and accordingly, their behavior. Although it might be difficult to identify clearly what one person’s identity is, since in general, all people have multiple identities, in certain circumstance, the conception of self and others provides a new lens through which we can look at the origin of conflict in a society and then prescribe corresponding management.
So far, the prison experiment has gone far beyond psychology. In the meantime, similar investigations around the transformation of behavior arising from the difference of roles have also been done and the results are always astonishing. It reminds us that factors which affect the peace and prosperity of a society may not only be external but also can also come from people’s internal world.
 Reicher, S. and Haslam, S.A. (2006). “Tyranny revisited: Groups, psychological well-being and the health of societies”, Psychologist, 19.3 (Mar 2006), pp. 146-150.
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