Power of Situational Roles

Role experiment is one of the concepts in psychology that tests whether we are born to be someone or shaped to be someone. Is it dispositional or situational? 

The most famous experiment of this type is the Stanford Prison experiment conducted in 1973 by Zimbardo. He wanted to find out whether the brutality reported among guards in American prisons was due to the sadistic personalities of the guards or had more to do with the prison environment. His team randomly assigned volunteer students as a prisoner and a guard. After 6 days, they had to stop the experiment due to serious issues faced by the prisoners and guards’ violence. This is a clear example of roles assigned to them overriding whatever disposition they had. These are Stanford students who were randomly assigned to be a prisoner or a guard. See the difference just in 6 days!

There are other experiments and studies that confirm the extent of situational influence. One experiment involves children role-playing a school, one playing a teacher and others students. At the end of the game, the one playing a teacher had learned more. There was pressure in being a teacher whose main role was knowing more than students. The situation shaped them to learn and behave maturely.

Another experiment assigned students at random in a gifted student class and a struggling student class. The research team told teachers that the students were gifted or struggling. When students behaved badly, teachers’ reactions were completely different. Teachers were patient with gifted students’ rowdy behavior as it was seen as a part of being gifted. Teachers were intolerant with struggling students’ rowdy behavior as it was seen as a sign of lack of respect and discipline.

It is a powerful message for us to remember. We human beings are social creatures. Our social interaction defines our self-identity, self-worth, motivation and many other things. If you treat people around you as prisoners with strict rules, they will behave like prisoners: passive, submissive, and demotivated. Over time, you as the guard will become aggressive, assertive and righteous. The gap between the prisoner and the guard widens as time goes by. The challenge is, we don’t know when this is happening. 

The Stanford Prison experiment had researchers observing and noticing the changes. Prisoners and guards were not fully aware of the transformation they were going through until they were debriefed. In our life, the role gap is not as extreme as a prisoner and a guard and we don’t have any observers. We don’t notice the changes happening slowly over time and how the roles change us gradually over time.

This is why we need an objective outsider who is trained to observe and notice people interactions and get a fresh perspective in how we interact with people around us. When we work with a new client, we spend a lot of time observing them in their daily life, whether it is at home or in the office. It’s amazing how much insight it provides. Often my clients ask me “Leah, how did you know? How did you find out?” They are so accustomed to their interaction that they no longer notice. An outsider does.