Group Role conflict and an experiment

When an individual is confronted by divergent role expectations, the results is role conflict. It exists when an individuals finds that compliance with one role requirement may make it more difficult to comply with another. At the extreme, it would include situations in which two or more role expectations are mutually contradictory.

Many roles had to deal which included several role conflicts – for instance, take the case of one Mr.Bill. His attempt to reconcile the expectations placed on him as a husband and father with those placed on him as an executive with his employer EMM. The former emphasizes stability and concern or the desire of his wife and children to remain in Phoenix. EMM on the other hand, expects its employees to be responsive to the needs and requirements of the company and location, the conflict comes down to choosing between family and career role expectation.

An Experiment: Zimbardos’ Prison Experiment > One of the more illuminating role experiments was done for a number of years by Stanford University psychologists Philip Zimbardo and his associates. They created a ‘prison’ in the basement of the Stanford psychology building hired at $15 a day two dozen emotionally stable, physically healthy law abiding students who scored ‘normal average’ on extensive personality tests, randomly assigned the role of either ‘guard’ or ‘prisoner’ and established some basic rules.

To get the experiment of a ‘realistic’ start, Zimbardo got the cooperation of the local police department. They went, unannounced, to each future prisoners’ home arrested and handcuffed them, put them in a squad car in front of friends and neighbors and took them to police headquarters where they were booked and fingerprinted. From there, they were taken to the Stanford prison.

At the start of the planned 2-week experiment, there were no measurable differences between the individuals assigned to be guards and those chosen to be prisoners. In addition, the guards received no special training in how to be prison guards. They were told only to ‘maintain law and order’ in the prison and not to take any nonsense from the prisoners. Physical violence was forbidden. To simulate further the realities of life, the prisoners were allowed visits from relatives and friends. And although the mock guards worked 8 hour shifts, the mock prisoners were kept in their cells, around the clock and were allowed out only for meals, exercise, toilet privileges, head count lineups, and work details.

It took the prisoners little time to accept the authority position of the guards or the mock guards to adjust to their new authority roles. After the guards crushed a rebellion attempt on the second day, the prisoners became increasingly passive. Whatever the guards ‘dished out’ the prisoners took. The prisoners actually began to believe and act as if they were, as the guards constantly reminded them, inferior and powerless. And every guard, after some time during the simulation, engaged in abusive authoritative behavior. For example, one guard said, “I was surprised at myself. I made them call each other names and clean the toilets out with their bare ands. I practically considered the prisoners cattle, and I kept thinking I have to watch out for them in case they try something”. Another guard added “I was tired of seeing the prisoners in their rags and smelling the strong odors of their bodies that filled the cells. I watched them tear at each other on orders given by us”. They didn’t see it as an experiment. It was real and they were fighting to keep their identity. But we were always there to show them who is the boss. Surprisingly during the entire experiment even after days of abuse – no prisoner said “Stop this; I’m a student like you. This is just an experiment”.

The simulation actually proved too successful in demonstrating how quickly individuals learn new roles. The researchers had to stop the experiments after only 6 days because of the participants’ pathological reactions. These were individuals chosen precisely for their normalcy and emotional stability.