Ferguson Protests, Riots, Power Abuse, and Not-So-Quiet Rage

What do classic studies in social psychology teach us about Ferguson's troubles?

Posted Aug 15, 2014

Contributors to this website, before today, have had little to say here so far about the protests and riots in Ferguson, Missouri, over the incident in which a police officer in the St. Louis suburb shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown. Maybe the topic's too scary. The White House has tread cautiously on this matter even as the President has urged peace and healing. For all the news and chatter going on about the crisis, most mental health professionals so far seem to have less to say than lay folk, perhaps because it is a delicate subject and one should be wary of rushing to a professional or even professional-sounding judgment when not all facts are known. Caution has value. Greater caution might have kept all this from blowing up in the first place. Caution, however, does not mean inertia. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, but those angels still need to do some treading, do they not?

People have plenty to say in social media, of course. When do people not? Those few who have been tweeting about the psychology of what's going on show some clearly recurring themes.

Through tweets, people are sharing links to a few resources, and tweeps keep bringing up Milgram. Is Milgram's obedience experiment really more relevant than Zimbardo's prison simulation, or is it simply better known? Stanley Milgram (1965) conducted the most famous study in the history of psychology, in which he directed participants to deliver painful and potentially lethal electric shocks to another test subject (the researcher's confederate, who did not really get shocked and only pretended to be hurt). Milgram found that about two thirds of all participants would deliver the maximum, most dangerous shocks when directed to do so by an authority figure. That was about obedience. There are most likely officers who are intimidating protestors out of obedience to their own superior officers, but the worst of what's going on often involves the initiative of individual officers, starting with the one who gunned down an unarmed young man.

Philip Zimbardo's 1971 prison simulation study, however, demonstrated how people's roles and uniforms shape their behavior. Zimbardo demonstrated that power corrupts. In the Stanford prison experiment, as it is commonly known, he randomly assigned volunteers to play the roles of either guards or prisoners in what was supposed to be a two-week experiment but ended after 6 days. Guards got carried away with how harshly they often treated prisoners; many prisoners became dehumanized and thought only of escape, survival, and hatred toward the guards; and Zimbardo himself lost sight of the project's cruel reality partly because he made the mistake of casting himself as the prisoner superintendent. Even the smart, analytical, well trained psychologist fell into his role and under the thrall of the power of the situation.

When I was in graduate school, I attended a talk Zimbardo gave at a meeting of the American Psychological Association. After Phil previewed the documentary Quiet Rage about the Stanford prison experiment, a Russian psychologist said (via translator) that seeing the film made him realize that his own country had undergone one massive experiment in which everybody fell into such roles over the course of too many decades.

Mob behavior is a different issue, also one involving the power of the situation. Zimbardo's obedience study was not about group influence, though. Zimbardo's study reveals more about the intricacies of group influence and the dangerous influence of roles. Zimbardo's study shows that power corrupts and the consequences of corruption can escalate.

Studies Cited

Milgram, S. (1965). Some conditions of obedience and disobedience to authority. Human Relations, 18, 57-76.

Zimbardo, P. G. (1971). The psychological power and pathology of imprisonment. A statement prepared for the U. S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee No. 3: Hearings on Prison Reform. San Franciso, CA, October 25.