Zimbardo’s famous ‘Stanford Prison Experiment‘ is often cited as an example of where circumstances influence average people to take up abusive roles.
In a recent article in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, psychologists Thomas Carnahan and Sam McFarland tested the idea that the people who volunteer for this sort of study were truly ‘average’ and found that they had character traits that could encourage abuse.
To recruit participants, the researchers used the newspaper advert from the original Stanford Prison Experiment, as well as another advert that was identical, except for the mention of ‘prison life’.
They found that volunteers who responded to the advert that mentioned ‘prison life’ scored significantly higher on measures of the abuse-related dispositions of aggressiveness, authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and social dominance and lower on empathy and altruism.
This suggests that circumstances may not be the only factor in influencing the sort of behaviour seen in the original study, as some people may have particular attitudes that could make abuse more likely when the circumstances allow for it.
There is further commentary and analysis of the research over at the ever-excellent CrimePsychBlog.
Link to CrimePsychBlog on ‘Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment’.
Link to abstract of research study.