How the Social Identity Approach has has contributed to our understanding of the psychology of brutality

It is well documented within psychology that seemingly ordinary people can behave in brutal and inhumane ways by the presence and influence of others. A host of psychological research has highlighted this propensity reliably and history has demonstrated it’s horrible reality as being pervasive over time. The atrocities of the Nazi Holocaust, The Stanford Prison Experiment (Haney, Banks & Zimbardo 1973), Milgram’s (1974) Obedience to Authority study and the events at Abu Grhaib and in some institutions for the vulnerable all demonstrate the tendency for people to behave in inhumane ways in group situations.

Two schools of thought have arisen to explain why this occurs. Some have argued that the brutality lies with the individual. The idea that people’s disposition or brutal personality is the cause was used by General Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defence to explain the behaviour of the ‘bad apples’ that performed the acts of torture against the detainees at Abu Grhaib. Contrary to this idea is Philip Zimbardo’s who was an expert witness for the defence at the trial and argued the case for the situational explanation; that the mere experience of being in a group is enough to make ‘ordinary’ people slip helplessly in to an evil role.

Lozowick (2002) argues that this idea has pervaded society and become ‘a permanent feature of Western consciousness… ‘ Broadly speaking two errors occur with these explanations; firstly the dispositional idea places all the blame with the individual and makes no reference to psychological research. However, the situational explanation takes away responsibility from the individual completely by saying any one of us could behave in these evil ways in the same circumstances.

Carnaghan & McFarland (2006) argue the case for an interactionist approach recognising the interplay between individual characteristics and person/situation experience in explaining brutality. Zimbardo asserted that the Stanford Prison Experiment should never be replicated for ethical reasons yet in 2006 Haslam & Reicher set up a similar situation in the BBC Prison Study. While it was not intended as a direct replication, and it has been argued conclusions made from it lack scientific rigour, Haslam & Reicher assert that it was needed as research has been constrained in this area since Zimbardo’s study almost forty years ago.

They claim that reassessment is needed of the explanations given by Zimbardo especially in the light of its use to explain terrorist and torturer behaviour in our current political climate. An alternative to these two views to account for why seemingly ‘normal’ people can behave in such uncharacteristic ways comes from the Social Identity Approach (Tajfel & Turner 1979) as applied by Haslam & Reicher in their analysis of the BBC Prison Study.

This proposes that there is a fundamental difference between how people see themselves individually (their idiosyncratic personal identity) and how they see themselves as a group member (their social identity). In order for social life to occur and for group behaviour to exist the individual undergoes a process of deindividuation. This is a lessening of self-identity and a shift to a social identity to allow the group to function as more than a collection of individuals.

The SIA (social identity approach) states that the behaviour is affected by which identity is in effect at a given time and that group membership provides a context in which interpersonal behaviour takes place. Moreover, this is a highly dynamic process. The group provides the context for behaviour and influences the behaviour based on what is considered salient in the group situation. Social norms are the patterns by which social life exists in everyday settings and groups enable us to do the most ordinary day-to-day social activities often with highly positive outcomes.

How then might the SIA lend itself to explaining how people in their ordinary day to day social groups, for example at work in the Army or in a care home, or even in a university research setting, be prompted to behave in brutal ways? Following the BBC Prison Study, Haslam & Reicher suggest the following explanations for the group behaviour after the study was halted for ethical reasons after six days, interestingly, around the same time that Zimbardo halted the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1973 on the same grounds.

Their interest lay not in replicating Zimbardo’s study, but in answering wider questions about group dynamics and their role in tyranny. One of their primary findings was that the ‘guards’ did not slip helplessly into their roles, Haslam & Reicher allowed them to define their own roles rather than being given a brief on how to behave as Zimbardo did with the guards in his study. Reicher, Haslam & Rath (in press) propose a five-step social identity model of collective hate.

Individuals must (1) identify with the values of their in-group and in so doing, they (2) create an out-group. The out-group is then considered a (3) threat to in-group cohesion and the (4) virtuous in-group values. This then (5) justifies the maltreatment of the out-group. They argue that Zimbardo’s plea for the guards to identify with his tyrannical values (of being able to demoralise and dehumanise the prisoners) led the guards to identify with his leadership and this set the tone for their behaviour in line with the five steps described above.

When applied more widely, the implication is that individuals take on a group identity based upon how strongly they identify with the goals and values of the group as often embodied by the leader. In the case of Nazi war criminals, Kershaw (1993) claimed that Adolf Eichmann and his followers actively worked towards the fuhrer and his tyrannical and brutal aims. In Abu Grhaib, could the in-group culture have been such that brutality against the detainees (brought on by the events of 911? was acceptable for the better good of America and even celebrated within the group ranks and leaders? Given the potential prejudice and emotionally charged out-group feeling against the detainees, it would be easy to see how the soldiers may have found it acceptable to apply brutality against them, especially if the higher ranking officers also held similar values, in effect sanctioning it.

Vetlesen (2005) argues that this kind of ‘careerism’ occurs in the workplace all the time and evil occurs when ‘institutional and individual factors meet halfway. Even so, how then did the ‘ambivalent guards’ and ‘rebellious prisoners’ as described in the BBC Prison Study end up almost subscribing to brutal authoritarian rule to the extent that the study was halted for their protection? Haslam & Reicher argue that group success or failure is an important factor. At the outset, the prisoners and guards were not happy with the distribution of power attached to their roles. The guards did not want to be mean to the prisoners and some tried to befriend them.

The prisoners developed a strong social identity within their group and became in control of their situation were agents of change leading to better co-ordinated efforts. They had higher self-esteem than the guards according to the clinical psychologists overseeing the study, so what went wrong? Haslam & Reicher argue that groups are not inherently bad for us; instead they can provide a support for individuals to achieve mutual agreement to work towards group goals.

However, in the case of acts of brutality, if group morale lowers due to failure within group disagreements may occur and causing the identity of the group to continue to fragment. Once fragmentation of the group happens, re-categorisation of in-group and out-groups occur. Combine this with the tendency for groups to reach more extreme decisions and overemphasise inter-group differences, the potential for the members of the group to become efficient agents of brutality is high. The social identity of the group empowers people to implement their shared values and beliefs (Turner 2005) whether good or evil.

Haslam & Reicher argue also while effective groups empower people in positive ways, that the converse is true when groups fail (as occurred with the guards. ) Group failure results in a lack of cohesion and social identity and the members of the group become ‘powerless and fragmented. ‘ Futhermore, they found that when groups fail, the members become less powerful agents of their own values, and are more susceptible to the suggestions of others even if it is to implement a rule of tyranny. This is when the BBC Prison Study was halted. In the Army where morale is low due to lack of public support for a war, could this cause group failure?

After all what is the point of occupying a country where many of the locals and even your own countrymen don’t want you there? Could this lead to a lack of positive group identity that could lead to brutal behaviour under the influence of others suggestion? Haslam & Reicher go further with this idea and state that ‘the failure of the group can corrupt absolutely’. Those who commit acts of brutality have chosen to exercise the norms and values that they believe in and so are still accountable, after all, in Abu Grhaib and in many of the ‘classic’ psychological studies of the infliction of brutality upon others, there were dissenters.

Haslam & Reicher have developed Carnaghan & McFarland’s notion of the interplay between the dispositional and situational theories of tyranny in a contemporary exploration of the group dynamics of brutality. One of the main criticisms of the dispositional or situational explanations of inhumane treatment of others lies with who has responsibility for the individual’s actions. From the perspective of social identity theory, the group does not absolve individual acts of brutality nor does the blame lie solely with the individual.

It will be interesting to see how this approach is applied in criminal cases in future and what Haslam & Reicher’s perspective as expert witness testimony for the Abu Grhaib soldiers would be compared to Zimbardo’s. For example, by examining the actual dynamics of the group, how the group functioned and the choices that produced ideologies of the group, it may be possible to more accurately apportion blame than previous received wisdom has allowed.

While Zimbardo calls for us to question how organisations are set up in such a way as to facilitate brutality, Haslam & Reicher concur but also pay more attention to the actual behaviour of the people. Rather than saying that it was due to psychopathic ‘bad apples’ or people just blindly falling into a role, social identity theory’s approach enables a more systematic dissection of the events leading to brutal acts. What is interesting is that both the Stanford Prison Experiment and the BBC Prison Study were halted at around six days.

Could there be a ‘critical time’ therefore when it comes to how groups come to make bad decisions. Reicher suggests that while it may not be possible to name a critical period at 5-6 days (when the studies were halted) he does believe that periodic psychometric testing of group members may enable predictions to be made about when the group was in imminent danger of failure. Haslam & Reicher argue that as the system fell into chaos the group normed toward authoritarianism and stated that ‘the personality variable that explains the dynamics of tyranny was itself changed as a function of the social dynamics’.

The implications from Haslam & Reicher (2006) and Zimbardo (2006) are that in order to prevent systematic abuse occurring within groups we must look outward to society and the norms embodied therein. Reading postings from ‘You Tube’ about Abu Grhaib, it is clear to see some of ‘societies’ views about the acceptability of brutality, the notion of ‘bad apples’ amongst us and the belief that we, as individuals, would never succumb to the group to this extreme (the fundamental attribution error).

In contrast looking into the group is also important. Why do some people dissent against the group? Clearly, the ‘whistle-blower’ should be held in high esteem by society and the passive bystander encouraged into activity. Brutal acts may be more likely to occur in secrecy so increased assessment and accountability of groups may be the answer especially if there is a ‘critical period’ where the tendency for imminent breakdown (and all the implications of this) could be measured, for example by questionnaire or psychometric test.

The police have had strict rules imposed to prevent improper conduct since the introduction of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act in 1986. Certain ‘high risk’ groups (for example government agents like the army and police where public money is being used) should be strictly monitored, as they are in effect the agents of power over all of us. Haslam & Reicher argue that the Social Identity Approach to tyrannical groups and the infliction of brutality on others has allowed psychology to escape from what they call ‘theoretical prisons’ where research has been constrained for almost forty years.