The psychology of tyranny

Sunday 2 October 2005

Ground-breaking research by psychologists at the Universities of St Andrews and Exeter has far reaching implications for the way groups function to create and resist tyranny.

Their findings shed important light on processes witnessed in current theatres of conflict and terror.

In the early 1970s, in one of the most famous psychology experiments of all time, researchers at Stanford University divided young men into prisoners and guards and saw the system descend into brutality. They concluded that it is natural for people in groups to abuse their power.

Four years ago, academics and the BBC came together to revisit this issue in the largest social psychological study to occur for three decades.

The scientists designed and ran an experiment that was filmed and broadcast in a documentary series entitled ‘The Experiment’. Now, for the first time, the scientific analysis, which challenges the old understanding of tyranny, is about to be published. This month’s edition of the journal ‘Scientific American Mind’ will be followed by papers in top academic journals such as the British Journal of Social Psychology, Leadership Quarterly, and the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Professor Stephen Reicher of the University of St Andrews explained: “We are arguing that it is the breakdown of groups and their subsequent inability to wield power effectively which underlies the rise of tyranny. The rise of Nazism in the 1930s was partly attributable to these dynamics.

“Our findings also have important social and political implications for today’s world, Iraq being a case in point. A clear lesson is that we need to build up groups and communities so they can use their power responsibly, resist stress, and develop effective leadership. Where we try to break groups down, we often foment resentment and sow the seeds of disorder.”

Professor Alex Haslam of the University of Exeter said: “Traditionally psychologists have often argued that when put in groups and given power, people will ‘naturally’ misuse or abuse it often in tyrannical ways. But in our study it was by coming together that the prisoners gained sufficient power to challenge the inequalities and injustices they experienced. Group power allowed them to create a fairer and more democratic system.

“The problems arose when people were reluctant to exercise their power and couldn’t make their democratic system work. That was when even those most committed to democracy began to be drawn to authoritarian solutions.”







Issued by Beattie Media On behalf of the University of St Andrews

Contact Gayle Cook, Press Officer on 01334 467227 / 462529, mobile 07900 050 103, or email gec3@st- Ref: Psychology of Tyranny 031005.doc View the latest University press releases at

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