Professor Alex Halsam
Professor Alex Halsam
Professor Alex Halsam

The BBC Prison Study: Improving our understanding of Group Dynamics, Power, and Tyranny

“One of the big problems in social psychology is that there have been theories – Zimbardo’s is the best known – which have naturalised abuse and oppression. They have made them seem normal and the manifestation of some basic human drive. Zimbardo argues that his guards behaved brutally because of a natural tendency – ‘natural’ was his term. It’s situational determinism. It must happen.”

“It would be foolish to argue that situation has no effect.” Professor Alex Haslam (now at the University of Queensland) says. “But what you see in our study [The BBC Prison Study] is that sometimes people do things you don’t expect. They say: ‘No, we’re not going to go along with that.’ The other flaw in Zimbardo’s analysis is that it doesn’t explain how people resile from oppressive situations and overthrow tyranny.”

The BBC Prison Study is one of the largest field studies in social psychology of the last 30 years. It was carried out to re-examine conclusions from one of the best-known social psychological experiments of all time (the Stanford Prison Experiment, or SPE) and the understanding of group dynamics that it promoted. Conducted in 1971 by a team of researchers, the SPE has played a major role in shaping both psychological theory and public understanding of tyranny and oppression.

The experiment saw participants assigned to the roles of guards and prison inmates. Over a short period of time, it was found that the guards became increasingly abusive and violent while the prisoners displayed increasing levels of anxiety and stress. As a result, the experiment had to be abandoned after just six days.

Researchers concluded that, when people assume positions of authority, it is ‘natural’ for them to conform to their roles by engaging in oppressive and abusive behaviour. Due to its dramatic findings, the SPE had a major impact not only within psychology but also in other academic fields and in public debate more generally.

Beyond mere replication, those involved in the BBC Prison Study were interested in exploring new theoretical ideas derived from social identity theory, testing critically the original conclusions that were derived from the SPE, broadening understanding relating to issues of tyranny and oppression, and working with the BBC to promote awareness of their research and its findings.

The BBC study saw the construction of a purpose-built prison-like environment in North London, where participants would be studied for up to 10 days. Participants were randomly assigned to roles of guards and prisoners, and over the course of the study a series of planned interventions were designed to impact on group dynamics. It was found that, despite their high-power position, the guards’ identification with their group decreased and this, in turn, diminished their capacity for organisation and leadership.

The prisoners, in contrast, showed increasingly high levels of identification with their group, allowing them to not only work as a group (in ways that the guards could not) but also make the guards’ regime unworkable. These conclusions challenged those derived from the SPE.

The study provided novel theoretical insights into group dynamics, leadership, tyranny and resistance. Beyond its academic impact, it had a profound impact on educational practices in particular, since becoming a core study within the A-level curriculum and undergraduate studies, and on public debate and understanding of these issues – most notably by challenging conclusions derived from the Stanford Prison Experiment (one of the best known experiments in psychology).