A number of scholars have noted that inequality in resources and power among other privileges could be the influencing factors of a rise in tyrannical rule. This has led to a number of researches being carried out to prove or disapprove this hypothesis. Owing to the difficulty and sensitivity of conducting a practical study about this topic, the empirical studies available on this topic are
few. One of the two practical studies that have been carried out in about three decades is the study conducted by Reicher & Haslam (2006): Rethinking the psychology of tyranny: The BBC prison study. Informed by similar experiments in this field of psychology, this paper critically evaluates the study in matters of its design and participants and the implications the two had in the outcome of the whole study.

Reicher & Haslam (2006) conducted their study to find out the behaviors exhibited by different groups that had inequalities in power, status and resources. To carry out this experiment, because it is not easily found in a natural setting, the researcher created a mock prison with guards and prisoners. However, they insist that the mock prison was not meant to represent a real prison
rather any given institutions where power and other privileges was not equally distributed. The researchers draw participants from an advertisement and selected a final sample of 15 from a possible 332 participants. Of these final participants, five became guards and the rest prisoners. The results of the study indicated that the prisoners overcame the guards as they were united while the guards failed to unite. The prisoners renegotiated their rights for equality leading to an agreement with the guards. The guards lacked unity leading to the rise of the prisoners. Reicher & Haslam concluded their study by suggesting that powerlessness coupledwith failure to identify with social groups is what makes tyranny acceptable psychologically. These sentiments are also supported by Turner (2006) in a commentary to the debate. Their conclusions sharply contrast with Zimbardo’s (2006) Stanford prison Experiment (SPE; Haney, Banks, & Zimbardo, 1973; Zimbardo, 1989; Zimbardo, Maslach, & Haney, 1999), which held that tyranny, grooms through groups formation and power (Reicher & Haslam, 2006).

Zimbardo conducted the first empirical experiment of this nature which has informed this field for the past three decades as noted by Reicher & Haslam (2006). Reicher & Haslam cast doubt in Zimbardo’s conclusion that behavior was influenced by participants naturally accepting their role. Instead, they think that behavior was influenced by leadership provided by the experimenters in Zimbardo’s study who told the guards exactly how to behave. In his counter article, responding to Reicher & Haslam, Zimbardo (2006) also accuses them of interfering with the participants, which he claims might have led to biased results. He feels they intruded the experiment numerous times enough to render the experiment useless scientifically. To validate their findings, Reicher & Haslam did not tell the guards what to do. Instead they showed them the tools of power at their disposal and allowed them to form their own rules and punishments. This makes Reicher & Haslam’s experiment superior to Zimbardo’s because the guards were not instructed what to do. Zimbardo (2006) criticizes that the way participants were selected was not random. Zimbardo says that Reicher and Haslam (2006) allege that the participants were randomly selected. However, Reicher & Haslam (2006) jointly react to Zimbardo’s allegations saying that the participants’ selection process was random and fitting a scientific nature. From Zimbardo’s perspective, it is easy to see what he sees. First, he says Reicher & Haslam (2006) do not detail the procedure they used to narrow down the participants to 27 and later to 15. He also says that the participants were selected based on certain profiles; authoritarianism, modern racism, and social dominance. This shows that some traits were desired over others. Similarly, the final
selection to divide the participants into 5 guards and 10 prisoners shows a scenario where they were first categorized into groups of five based on similar character. From the five groups one participant was selected randomly. This shows that both groups had a representation of all characters among the sample. Although the selection of individuals is random, the traits of the
individuals might have not been. However, this played well to ensure that one group does not get all the tough guys as claimed by Zimbardo (2006) in his comment about the BBC experiment. This makes the participants selection by Reicher & Haslam to be the most appropriate for the experiment. The individuals were randomly selected into the groups; guards and prisoners. Zimbardo (2006) also criticizes that letting the participants know that they were being filmed influenced the behavior of the participants. Scholars have noted that participants might behave differently if they know that they are being observed than they would in a natural setting (Turner, 2006). However, the participants were not exclusively told how to behave or given rules to follow, they were left to decide for themselves, both guards and prisoners. This ensured the setting played on naturally regardless of filming. No group had an upper hand over the other or had a script to follow. Therefore, this could not have affected the results or given one group upper hand over the other in Reicher & Haslam’s experiment, contrary to what Zimbardo claims.

Despite the counter arguments, Zimbardo agrees that Reicher & Haslam’s experiment has some contributions to offer. Their experiment clearly shows that if a group is disjointed it, it is easily overcame by the other group. The guards were overpowered by the prisoners because they did not speak in one voice. Reicher & Haslam’s experiment also show that lack of power will cause the powerless group to form resistance in a bid to rise to power, leading to tyranny. This contrasts with Zimbardo’s claim that power leads to tyranny. While one can use power to rise to tyranny as noted with some dictators, the majority fight for power. Based on the findings, one counter conclude that, lack of power can lead to tyranny.

Clinical Psychologist
Beyhan Perim Seçmen

Haslam, S.A., & Reicher, S. (2006). Debating the psychology of tyranny: Fundamental issues of
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Reicher, S., & Haslam, S. A. (2006). Rethinking the psychology of tyranny: The BBC prison study.
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Turner, J. C. (2006). Tyranny, freedom and social structure: Escaping our theoretical prisons.

British Journal of Social Psychology, 45, 41–46.

Zimbardo, P.G. (2006). On rethinking the psychology of tyranny: The BBC prison study. British
Journal of Social Psychology, 45, 47-53.