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101 Self-Presentation

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe social roles and how they influence behaviour
  • Explain what social norms are and how they influence behaviour
  • Define script
  • Describe the findings of Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment

As you’ve learned, social psychology is the study of how people affect one another’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. We have discussed situational perspectives and social psychology’s emphasis on the ways in which a person’s environment, including culture and other social influences, affect behaviour. In this section, we examine situational forces that have a strong influence on human behaviour including social roles, social norms, and scripts. We discuss how humans use the social environment as a source of information, or cues, on how to behave. Situational influences on our behaviour have important consequences, such as whether we will help a stranger in an emergency or how we would behave in an unfamiliar environment.

Social Roles

One major social determinant of human behaviour is our social roles. A social role is a pattern of behaviour that is expected of a person in a given setting or group (Hare, 2003). Each one of us has several social roles. You may be, at the same time, a student, a parent, an aspiring teacher, a son or daughter, a spouse, and a lifeguard. How do these social roles influence your behaviour? Social roles are defined by culturally shared knowledge. That is, nearly everyone in a given culture knows what behaviour is expected of a person in a given role. For example, what is the social role for a student? If you look around a college classroom you will likely see students engaging in studious behaviour, taking notes, listening to the professor, reading the textbook, and sitting quietly at their desks (Figure SP.8). Of course you may see students deviating from the expected studious behaviour such as texting on their phones or using Facebook on their laptops, but in all cases, the students that you observe are attending class—a part of the social role of students.

A photograph shows students in a classroom.

Figure SP.8 Being a student is just one of the many social roles you have. (credit: modification of work by “Rural Institute”/Flickr)

Social roles, and our related behaviour, can vary across different settings. How do you behave when you are engaging in the role of a child attending a family function? Now imagine how you behave when you are engaged in the role of employee at your workplace. It is very likely that your behaviour will be different. Perhaps you are more relaxed and outgoing with your family, making jokes and doing silly things. But at your workplace you might speak more professionally, and although you may be friendly, you are also serious and focused on getting the work completed. These are examples of how our social roles influence and often dictate our behaviour to the extent that identity and personality can vary with context (that is, in different social groups) (Malloy, Albright, Kenny, Agatstein & Winquist, 1997).

Social Norms

As discussed previously, social roles are defined by a culture’s shared knowledge of what is expected behaviour of an individual in a specific role. This shared knowledge comes from social norms. A social norm is a group’s expectation of what is appropriate and acceptable behaviour for its members—how they are supposed to behave and think (Deutsch & Gerard, 1955; Berkowitz, 2004). How are we expected to act? What are we expected to talk about? What are we expected to wear? In our discussion of social roles we noted that colleges have social norms for students’ behaviour in the role of student and workplaces have social norms for employees’ behaviours in the role of employee. Social norms are everywhere including in families, gangs, and on social media outlets. What are some social norms on Facebook?

CONNECT THE CONCEPTS

Tweens, Teens, and Social Norms

My 11-year-old, Shiloh, recently told me they needed shorts and shirts for the summer, and that they wanted me to take them to a store at the mall that is popular with preteens and teens to buy them. I have noticed that many kids have clothes from that store, so I tried teasing Shiloh. I said, “All the shirts say ‘Aero’ on the front. If you are wearing a shirt like that and you have a substitute teacher, and the other kids are all wearing that type of shirt, won’t the substitute teacher think you are all named ‘Aero’?”

Shiloh replied, in typical 11-year-old fashion, “You are not funny. Can we please go shopping?”

I tried a different tactic. I asked Shiloh if having clothing from that particular store will make them popular. They replied, “No, it will not make me popular. It is what the popular kids wear. It will make me feel happier.” How can a label or name brand make someone feel happier? Think back to what you’ve learned about lifespan development. What is it about pre-teens and young teens that make them want to fit in (Figure SP.9)? Does this change over time? Think back to your high school experience, or look around your college campus. What is the main name brand clothing you see? What messages do we get from the media about how to fit in?

A photograph shows a group of young people dressed similarly in winter jackets.

Figure SP.9 Young people struggle to become independent at the same time they are desperately trying to fit in with their peers. (credit: Monica Arellano-Ongpin)

Scripts

Because of social roles, people tend to know what behaviour is expected of them in specific, familiar settings. A script is a person’s knowledge about the sequence of events expected in a specific setting (Schank & Abelson, 1977). How do you act on the first day of school, when you walk into an elevator, or are at a restaurant? For example, at a restaurant in the United States, if we want the server’s attention, we try to make eye contact. In Brazil, you would make the sound “psst” to get the server’s attention. You can see the cultural differences in scripts. To an American, saying “psst” to a server might seem rude, yet to a Brazilian, trying to make eye contact might not seem an effective strategy. Scripts are important sources of information to guide behaviour in given situations. Can you imagine being in an unfamiliar situation and not having a script for how to behave? This could be uncomfortable and confusing. How could you find out about social norms in an unfamiliar culture?

Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment

The famous Stanford prison experiment, conducted by social psychologist Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues at Stanford University, demonstrated the power of social roles, social norms, and scripts. In the summer of 1971, an advertisement was placed in a California newspaper asking for male volunteers to participate in a study about the psychological effects of prison life. More than 70 men volunteered, and these volunteers then underwent psychological testing to eliminate candidates who had underlying psychiatric issues, medical issues, or a history of crime or drug abuse. The pool of volunteers was whittled down to 24 healthy male college students. Each student was paid $15 per day (equivalent to about $80 today) and was randomly assigned to play the role of either a prisoner or a guard in the study. Based on what you have learned about research methods, why is it important that participants were randomly assigned?

A mock prison was constructed in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford. Participants assigned to play the role of prisoners were “arrested” at their homes by Palo Alto police officers, booked at a police station, and subsequently taken to the mock prison. The experiment was scheduled to run for several weeks. To the surprise of the researchers, both the “prisoners” and “guards” assumed their roles with zeal. On the second day of the experiment, the guards forced the prisoners to strip, took their beds, and isolated the ringleaders using solitary confinement. In a relatively short time, the guards came to harass the prisoners in an increasingly sadistic manner, through a complete lack of privacy, lack of basic comforts such as mattresses to sleep on, and through degrading chores and late-night counts.

The prisoners, in turn, began to show signs of severe anxiety and hopelessness—they began tolerating the guards’ abuse. Even the Stanford professor who designed the study and was the head researcher, Philip Zimbardo, found himself acting as if the prison was real and his role, as prison supervisor, was real as well. After only six days, the experiment had to be ended due to the participants’ deteriorating behaviour. Zimbardo explained,

At this point it became clear that we had to end the study. We had created an overwhelmingly powerful situation—a situation in which prisoners were withdrawing and behaving in pathological ways, and in which some of the guards were behaving sadistically. Even the “good” guards felt helpless to intervene, and none of the guards quit while the study was in progress. Indeed, it should be noted that no guard ever came late for his shift, called in sick, left early, or demanded extra pay for overtime work. (Zimbardo, 2013)

The Stanford prison experiment demonstrated the power of social roles, norms, and scripts in affecting human behaviour. The guards and prisoners enacted their social roles by engaging in behaviours appropriate to the roles: The guards gave orders and the prisoners followed orders. Social norms require guards to be authoritarian and prisoners to be submissive. When prisoners rebelled, they violated these social norms, which led to upheaval. The specific acts engaged by the guards and the prisoners derived from scripts. For example, guards degraded the prisoners by forcing them do push-ups and by removing all privacy. Prisoners rebelled by throwing pillows and trashing their cells. Some prisoners became so immersed in their roles that they exhibited symptoms of mental breakdown; however, according to Zimbardo, none of the participants suffered long term harm (Alexander, 2001).

There have been a number of more recent real-world examples that demonstrate this type of behaviour (e.g., Abu Ghraib, detainment camps in southern US, etc.).

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Self-Presentation by Edited by Leanne Stevens is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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