Conformity to social roles
Social roles are the actions that people are expected to display in social situations. They involve the behaviours and attitudes which individuals should adopt as members of different social groups in order to fit in with, and meet the requirements of, those social situations. An individual has first to perceive what role they are expected to play within a given social situation, and then meet the expectation by ’playing the part’. Different social situations have different social roles to adopt — for example, there is an expectation that someone will be outgoing and playful at a party, but reserved and serious at a funeral. People learn social roles from experience and they become internal mental scripts, which individuals select from in order to behave appropriately in different social settings. Conformity to social roles involves identification (see page 2), which is stronger than compliance, as it involves public and private acceptance of the behaviour and attitudes adopted. Conformity to social roles is not as strong as internalisation, which is a more permanent form of conformity, as individuals only conform to specific social roles while in particular social situations. They change their behaviour to suit new social norms when they move to new social situations.
Fig 1.4 Zimbardo’s study showed how people conform readily to social roles
Zimbardo (1973) investigated the extent to which people would conform to the roles of guard and prisoner in a simulation of prison life. The participants were 21 students, who were selected for their physical and mental stability and lack of criminal history. A realistic mock prison was set up and the prisoners dehumanised (their individual identity was removed) by being made to wear prison uniforms and referred to by numbers instead of names. The uniformed guards’ role was to keep order, though physical punishment was banned. Over the course of the experiment, the guards became increasingly abusive and most prisoners increasingly submissive. Four prisoners were released due to their poor mental state. Scheduled to run for 2 weeks, the study was stopped after 6 days when Zimbardo realised the extent of the harm that was occurring. The study illustrated that individuals conform readily to the social roles expected in a situation, even when such roles override individuals’ moral beliefs.
• Haslam & Reicher (2002) replicated Zimbardo’s study, aiming to investigate the behaviour of groups that were unequal in terms of power and status. Participants were randomly selected as guards or prisoners, with the guards constructing prison rules and punishments for breaking them. The prisoners increasingly developed a group identity, but the guards did not and were reluctant to impose authority. They were overcome by the prisoners. The participants then set up an equal social system, but this proved unsustainable and attempts to impose a harsher regime met with weak resistance, at which point the study ended. It was concluded that powerlessness and the failure of groups allows cruel domination to occur.
• Snyder (1974) found that high self-monitors (people who are able to respond to social cues and adjust their behaviour accordingly) were able to adapt their behaviour to fit the needs of different social situations, while the behaviour of low self-monitors (people who are less able to respond to social cues and adjust their behaviour accordingly) was more fixed due to innate personality traits. This suggests that some individuals are more able to conform to social roles than others.
Conformity to different social roles in different social situations may have an evolutionary survival value, as it allows us to understand and adapt to the requirements of different situations and thus fit in. Social order is thereby created and maintained, permitting a safe, predictable world for individuals to interact within.
Research into social roles suggests that behaviour in brutalising institutions, such as prisons, can be improved by the provision of less dehumanising environments.
The fact that social roles are not permanent means people can adapt successfully to changing environments and therefore have the flexibility to meet the needs of a diverse range of social situations.
Zimbardo hoped his research would lead to beneficial changes in the prison system, but he concluded that, as such, his research was a failure because if anything prison conditions have got worse.
Zimbardo’s study was unethical: fully informed consent was not given, there were elements of deceit, the right to withdraw was not made clear and, probably most importantly, high levels of both physical and psychological harm occurred.
There seem to be large individual differences in the ability to identify and adopt required social roles. Therefore, some people are less able to successfully adapt to different environments.
The move to all-seater football grounds following the Taylor Report (1992) saw a huge reduction in acts of hooliganism, arguably because the less brutal environments thus created led to less aggressive social roles for supporters to conform to.