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If you haven?t been there already do visit Reicher and Haslam?s official multi-media site for the BBC Prison Study. Here is the link to the BBC Experiment.





















An example of tyranny is the horrors of the genocide carried out during the Second World War when six million innocent people were systematically slaughtered on command by the Nazis during Hitler?s regime.








This video (if it works) highlights the historical, cultual and ethical differences between Reicher and Haslam's BBC Experiment and Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment. Watch it here















Reicher and Haslam are also critical of some of the literature which explains tyranny such as the Holocaust. For example some historians have argued that tyranny is a natural consequence of being in the uniform of a ?guard? and asserting the power inherent in that role. Immersion in a group is seen to undermine the constraints that normally operate upon people when they act as individuals. In addition, when those groups have power at their disposal, this is believed to encourage extreme antisocial behaviour.






























































































































































































































































































































































































I do hope I have not insulted your intelligence by censoring the F word. This was done because some over-zealous web searches block pages which contain this word.

































































































Home > Social > Reicher and Haslam (BBC prison study) Study

Reicher and Haslam (BBC prison study)

Reicher, S. & Halsam, S. A. (2006) Rethinking the psychology of tyranny. The BBC prison study.



Reicher and Haslam carried out this experimental case study to examine the consequences of randomly dividing men into groups of prisoners and guards within a specially constructed institution over a period of 8 days.

Unlike the prisoners, the guards failed to identify with their role. This made the guards reluctant to impose their authority and they were eventually overcome by the prisoners. Participants then established an egalitarian social system. When this proved unsustainable, moves to impose a tyrannical regime met with weakening resistance.

Haslam and Reicher suggest that it is powerlessness and the failure of groups that makes tyranny psychologically acceptable.




Stephen Reicher and Alexander Haslam set out to outline a theoretical framework for understanding tyranny.

Reicher and Haslam define tyranny as an unequal social system involving the arbitrary or oppressive use of power by one group or its agents over another.

Stephen Reicher and Alexander Haslam carried out this ambitious social psychological experiment in conjunction with the BBC in December 2001. In part the study was aiming to revisit some of the issues raised by a study carried out nearly 30 years earlier by Philip Zimbardo known as the Stanford Prison Experiment. In the Stanford Prison experiment young men were randomly allocated the roles of prisoner and guards and the study had to be terminated after just 6 days because of the extreme sadistic and humiliating behaviour of the guards and the intense discomfort of the prisoners.

The Stanford Prison experiment as well as earlier research such as that by Milgram helped shift explanations about tyranny from individuals to groups.

Zimbardo argued that his Prison Experiment demonstrated that situations can create terror and he came to the conclusion that the guards? aggression was simply an adoption of the behaviour expected of that role.

Reicher and Haslam disagree and argue that the guards and prisoners behaviour was not due to a natural acceptance of their roles but may have been more to do with the instructions given to them by Zimbardo.

Furthermore Haslam and Reicher note that in the Zimbardo study there were individual differences whereby some of the guards were tough but fair and others less fair. Again this challenges the view that behaviour in the Stanford Prison Experiment is due to role acceptance.

Reicher and Haslam take issue with the notion that groups per se are the root of anti-social behaviour. They argue that powerful and effective groups provide an effective psychological safeguard against tyranny and that it is when groups prove ineffective that tyrannical forms of social organisation begin to become attractive.

Reicher and Haslam like other psychologists such as Zimbardo and Milgram also use a social psychological approach but they advocate the use of the social identity approach which is much more sophisticated than role theory. This social cognitive theory was developed by Tajfel and Turner and is one of the main theories in European social psychology.

According to social identity theory people do not automatically act the role given to them. Our acceptance of roles depends on how much we internalise the membership of a group and our view of ourselves.

For example if we are in a positively valued group (such as guards) we will tend to identify with that group and behave accordingly. And, if we are in a negatively valued group we are less likely to internalise the values.

There are three important predictions that arise from social identity theory relating to group resistance.

Firstly, is a person?s belief about their opportunity to move from one group to another ? this is called permeability. If permeability is low, that is we do not believe that we have the ability to move from one group to another more valued group, we are likely to identify with that group and act collectively as a group.

Secondly is a person?s belief about the legitimacy of group inequalities. If members of a group believe that the inequalities between groups are unfair the members will be more likely to act collectively to challenge the status quo.

Thirdly are the cognitive alternatives available to group members. Cognitive alternatives occur when members of a lower status group become aware of ways in which social relations could be restructured in order to bring about social change. As cognitive alternatives become available the prediction is that there will be a challenge to authority.




The study attempted to create an institution to investigate the behaviour of groups that were unequal in terms of power, status, and resources.

Below is a summary of Reicher and Haslam?s aims.

To provide evidence of the unfolding interactions between groups of unequal power.

To investigate if dominant group members will identify with their group from the start and impose their power.

To investigate if subordinate group members will identify collectively and challenge intergroup inequalities when relations between groups are seen as impermeable and insecure.

To measure the social, organisational and clinical effects of the study on the participants.

To develop a practical and ethical framework for examining social psychological issues in large-scale studies.




The method used was an experimental case study. It is a case study because it was a detailed study of a group of people and it was an experiment because a number of interventions (independent variables) were introduced at specific points of the study.

The study was monitored throughout by an ethics committee and by independent psychologists.

The 15 participants were all male, and met the criteria of being normal, decent and well adjusted individuals. They were recruited through advertisements in the national press and through leaflets. They were randomly divided into two groups of 5 guards and 10 prisoners.

Applicants went through three phases of screening.

Firstly, they completed psychometric tests that measured both social variables (authoritarianism, social dominance, modern racism) and clinical variables (depression, anxiety, social isolation, paranoia, aggressiveness, de-motivation, self-esteem, self-harm, drug dependence).

Secondly, they underwent a full weekend assessment by independent clinical psychologists.

Thirdly, medical and character references were obtained, and police checks were conducted.

For ethical reasons only people who were well-adjusted and pro-social, scoring at low levels on all social and clinical measures were included in the study.

From an initial pool of 332 applicants the researchers reduced the sample to 27 men.

Men were chosen so that the results could be compared with the SPE and because it was thought by the researchers to cause less ethical problems than using women.

The final sample of 15 was chosen to ensure diversity of age, social class, and ethnic background.

The 15 participants were randomly divided into two groups of 5 guards and 10 prisoners.

The 15 participants were first divided into five groups of 3 people who were as closely matched as possible on personality such as racism, authoritarianism and social dominance. From each group of three, one participant was then randomly selected to be a guard (and the remaining two to be prisoners).

The design is a mixture of matched pairs and independent measures design

One prisoner was not involved at the beginning of the study.

The study was designed to create a hierarchical society in which people would live for up to 10 days. It was conducted within an institutional environment that was constructed inside Elstree Film Studios in north London.

Prisoners were allocated to lockable 3-person cells that were located, together with showers, off a central atrium. This was separated by a lockable steel mesh fence from the guards? quarters (a dormitory, bathroom, and mess room). A plan of the prison is presented below.


Participants could be both video and audio recorded wherever they were.

There was also daily psychometric testing. The participants were tested on:

(a) Social variables: social identification, awareness of cognitive alternatives, rightwing authoritarianism;

(b) Organizational variables: compliance with rules, organizational citizenship; and

(c) Clinical variables: self-efficacy, depression.

In order to minimise fatigue, not every measure in the full battery was administered every day.

Furthermore, daily swabs of saliva were taken in order to ascertain cortisol levels.

The five guard participants were invited to a hotel the evening before they entered the prison and were told that they would be guards in the study. They were told that their responsibility was to ensure that the institution ran as smoothly as possible and that the prisoners performed all their tasks. The five guards were then asked to draw up a series of prison rules and to draw up a series of punishments for rule violations.

The guards were given no guidance about how they should achieve their goals. The only limits on what they could do were a set of ethically determined ?basic rights? for prisoners. All participants were told that physical violence would not be tolerated. Beyond this, however, it was stressed that the guards could act as they pleased.

On the morning of day one of the study, the guards were taken in a blacked-out van to the prison (since this was meant to be their entire experiential world for the duration of the study, it was important that they could not imagine the outside). Once inside, they were given a full briefing by the experimenters on the prison layout and the resources available to them.

The guards had a series of means by which to enforce their authority, including keys to all doors inside the prison (including a punishment isolation cell), sole access to an upper level, a ?guards? station? with a surveillance system from which they could see into the prisoners? cells, resources (including snacks and cigarettes) to use as rewards or withdraw as punishments ? and, in addition, the ability to put prisoners on a bread and water diet.

The guards also had far better conditions than the prisoners, including superior meals, extra supplies of drinks and snacks, superior living conditions and well-made uniforms

After their briefing, the guards changed into their uniforms and practiced the procedure for admitting the prisoners.

The nine prisoners then arrived one at a time. Their heads were shaved, everyday clothes were taken away and they had to shower. The prisoners? uniform consisted of a t-shirt printed with a 3-digit number, loose trousers and flimsy sandals. They were then put into cells.

There were three planned interventions ? permeability, legitimacy and cognitive alternatives. These interventions can be seen as the independent variables.

Permeability refers to the degree to which it is perceived to be possible to move from one particular group into another.

At their initial briefing, the guards were told that they had been selected because of their reliability, trustworthiness and initiative from pre-selection assessment scales. However, they were also told that while these scales were reasonably reliable, they were not perfect. In particular, the experimenters stated that it was possible that they had misassigned one or more of the prisoners. Hence, the guards were told that they should observe the behaviour of the prisoners to see if anyone showed guard like qualities. If they did, they were told that there was provision for a promotion to be made on Day 3.

This information was also announced to the prisoners over the loudspeaker. In the initial days of the study, participants were thus led to believe that movement between groups was possible. After the promotion of one prisoner to guard actually took place (the selection of the individual being made by the guards on the basis of a procedure suggested by the experimenters), the possibility of movement was removed by announcing that there would be no further promotions (or demotions).

Legitimacy refers to the extent to which relations and status differences between groups are perceived to be justified or not.

Three days after the promotion (day 6), participants were to be informed by the experimenters that there were in fact no differences between guards and prisoners. And they were to be told that it was impractical to reassign them and hence the groups would be kept as they were. The participants would now believe that the group division was not legitimate.

This planned intervention was not introduced.

Cognitive alternatives refers to group members' awareness of ways in which social relations could be restructured in order to bring about social change.

Within a day of the legitimacy intervention (day 4) a new prisoner was introduced. He was chosen for this role because of his background as an experienced trade union official. Hence, it was expected that his introduction would enable the prisoners (and the participants more generally) to envisage the achievement of a more equal set of social relations.




Haslam and Reicher divided the findings of the experiment into two phases rejecting inequality (day 1 to 6) and embracing inequality (day 7 ? 8)

Rejecting inequality

In this first phase of the study the guards did not identify with their group and therefore did not act collectively. The prisoners also lacked a social identity initially and acted individually in the hope of being promoted. However after the promotion on day 3, the prisoners increasingly identified as a group and on day 6 the guards were overthrown by the prisoners.

Throughout the study quantitative data was used to support the observational findings. For example psychometric tests revealed that although the guards started out with higher scores of social identification this gradually reduced whereas the social identification of the prisoners increased after the promotion on day 3.

Embracing inequality

In this second phase of the study the prisoners and guards decided to create a new self governing commune. However the commune was unable to deal with internal dissent and some of the former prisoners and former guards attempted to impose a new much harsher regime on the other participants. It was proposed by the new guards that this new regime would have strict rules and punishments to ensure that everyone ?toed the line?. The study therefore had to be terminated on day 8 as it would have gone on to break ethical guidelines.

Throughout the study quantitative data was used to support the observational findings. For example, psychometric tests revealed that beliefs in right wing authoritarianism increased throughout the study for both prisoners and guards.

Days 1 and 2

During day one and two, contrary to the authors expectations the guards did not identify with their group and did not behave collectively. This was a surprise to the authors because this was a high status group.

Some of the guards did identify with their role but most of them did not. Most of the guards were very conscious of the role and felt that it was undeserved and were conscious of how they appeared to other people and were concerned about abusing their power. For example some of the guards even tried to give away some of their resources such as food (sausages)

It was found that the guards were not able to form a plan of action because they didn?t work as a group

As expected the prisoners also lacked a social identity probably because they were aware of the ability to gain promotion to the guards group.

The prisoners were unhappy with their inferior conditions and some of the prisoners attempted to improve their lot by displaying the individual qualities they thought would be expected for promotion. As a result, there was no shared identity among the prisoners and no consensus about how they should behave.

Even though the prisoners could see the weakness of the guards they were not united to take the guards on. During these first two day the guards were able to manage the prisoners because the prisoners lacked a group identity.

Day 3 and 4

On day 3 the guards decided which prisoner should be promoted. This was perhaps the most dramatic part of the study as the door had been slammed shut. The prisoners now took on the guards as a group. Almost instantly they began to act together. They began by teasing the guards, humiliating them and challenging their authority

Low group identity amongst guards led to ineffective leadership. This meant there was no need for the legitimacy intervention which had been intended to create insecurity and trigger the search for cognitive alternatives.

Day 5

With the prison in disorder the researchers made their second planned intervention on the morning of day 5. A trade unionist (prisoner 10) was introduced as a further prisoner and Reicher and Haslam believed that because of his background he would offer an alternative vision and offer some order to the simulated prison. They were interested to find out if this individual would change the situation or whether the situation would change this individual.

The trade unionists opportunity came when the prisoners stole the keys off the guards who were then prepared to negotiate to get the keys back. In the meeting which followed there was a confrontation between the trade unionist and a very powerful and charismatic prisoner. The trade unionist suggested a forum where prisoners and guards would meet daily to discuss grievances The trade unionist argument won, he had helped to harness the group and the guards were eager and pleased to accept this arrangement.

Quantitative measures showed that participants became increasingly aware of cognitive alternatives (e.g. ?I think the relationship between prisoners and guards is likely to change?).

Day 6

Initially the commune had worked effectively. Almost all of the participants believed in it and the participants identified with commune ? its structure and its rules. For example previously cleaning duties had been completed reluctantly but now the participants completed these duties much better and worked hard for the system. For a short time this was a very harmonious system. However it became very apparent that not everybody in the commune was happy with it. Three participants started to make trouble for the commune members. For example they stopped doing their chores

On the morning of day 6 the researchers withdrew the trade unionist from the study. The other prisoners were told that he was withdrawn for health reasons.

During this morning of the 6th day by chance the breakfast was of poor quality and this exacerbated the crisis. This was incorrectly taken as a sign that the experimenters disapproved of the commune system.

A power vacuum appeared and some of the former prisoners and guards believed that this was a vacuum that they could fill and they came up with a plan to reinstate the old prisoner guard regime but with themselves as the new guards.

As a result, late on the evening of Day 6, the prisoners in Cell 2 broke out of their cell and occupied the guards? quarters. At this point, the guards? regime was seen by all to be unworkable and at an end.

Day 7 and 8

The crisis was exploited by opponents of the commune, four of whom (one ex-guard and three ex-prisoners) developed a plan to create a new and harsher guard?prisoner hierarchy. The nature and tone of this new regime was made clear in discussions about the form this would take. As one of the participants put it, ?We want to be the guards and f**king make them toe the line, I mean on the f**king line. No f**king talking while you are eating. Get on with your food and get the f**king hell back to your cell?.

Shortly after breakfast, this group convened a meeting where their leader berated the commune and its supporters and he introduced the idea of the new hierarchy. The supporters of the commune were largely passive in response. They looked despondent and listened in silence. During debriefings, a number of them acknowledged that, although they would not have openly endorsed such a hierarchy, they were less opposed to it than they had been previously and that they felt less repulsed by the idea of a strong social order in which someone else assumed responsibility for making the system work.

The study was halted at noon on day 8 because the researchers believed that the study was gridlocked. The researchers believed that new guards would have had the force to impose their regime in the face of weakening resistance but that such force would be prohibited according to ethical guidelines.

The participants remained for a further day in order to undertake a series of structured debriefings designed to obtain and provide feedback on their experience, to explain the rationale for the study and to overcome any hostility between individuals deriving from events in the study.




Reicher and Haslam argue that their findings concerning reactions to inequality cannot be explained through a general or ?natural? tendency to assume roles and assert power.

Instead, they argue that there are a range of factors that determine whether people themselves identify with the social positions to which they are ascribed by others. Some of those factors operated in ways specified by social identity theory.

They argue that groups are the basis for collective self-realization ? that is, the creation of a social order based on shared values and norms. However, where groups fail, the researchers argue that people will be more inclined to accept the imposition of a social order by others, even where that violates their values and norms. Therefore, in contrast to those who explain tyranny and other extreme social phenomena in terms of the psychological dysfunctionality of groups, Reicher and Haslam interpret them in terms of the dysfunctionality of group failure.

The researchers also claim that a major achievement of their BBC prison study is to show that, if sufficient care is taken, it is possible to run powerful and influential field studies that are also ethical issues.




Reicher and Haslam did provide four potential critiques of their study.

Firstly they suggest that the behaviour of participants could have been determined by the fact that they knew they were being observed by television cameras and that this could render the study so artificial as to have little or no general value. However the researchers make a robust defence of their study by arguing that the screening process was used to exclude anyone who was motivated by the desire for publicity, that behaviour was backed up by physiological and psychological tests and that play-acting was unlikely over such a long period. Furthermore the researchers suggested that play acting to the cameras could not explain the changes in observed behaviour throughout the study and importantly in response to the planned interventions. They also note that surveillance is becoming a normal part of everyday life.

Secondly they note that the effects they observed could have been a product of participants? personalities rather than group processes. For example, the three more powerful participants may have been predisposed to overwhelm the guards. Again the researchers make a robust defence of their study and argue that although individual differences are part of the story they note that personality could not explain changing behaviour patterns throughout the study. For example, one participant who opposed the guards? authority was deferential until he realised that he could no longer have promotion as a guard.

A third potential criticism of the study is that the participants did not engage with a meaningful situation in which there were real inequalities of resources and power. The researchers however provide evidence that prisoners did resent their subordinate position from the start of the study and that the guards? initial conversations focused on the power of the situation.

The fourth potential critique is that the variables upon which the researchers? predictions focused (the planned interventions) were not responsible for the effects obtained. Or in other words were the changes in behaviour that occurred a result of the independent variables? The researchers note that their multiple data sources (behavioural and psychometric) enabled them to check whether participants did spontaneously reacted to the interventions. The researchers argue that their quantitative and qualitative data suggest that they did.