Our study showed that that there is a world of difference between someone imposing a group role upon you, and you seeing yourself in terms of that role. It is the difference between hearing ‘you are a Guard’ and thinking ‘I am a Guard’.
As we have seen, individuals do not conform blindly or mindlessly to roles. Rather, they only act in terms of a role when they internalize it as a result of social identification with the group – so that they see the role as part of their identity.
So what determines when a role becomes part of a social identity? Our study provides two answers.
First, for members of devalued groups (the Prisoners), much depends on social structure. Where possible, members will try and succeed by leaving the group. Only where this is impossible will they start identifying with the group and joining with others to change the system.
Second, for members of valued groups (the Guards), much depends on accountability. Where members are aware that others, beyond the immediate context, will disapprove, punish or even exclude them for taking on a role, they will be less willing to identify with it. So, even if our Guards had high status in the prison, they could imagine that people outside the prison would look down on them for being harsh – especially those who belonged to more liberal groups in their everyday lives.