There has been an almost widespread consensus amongst social psychologists that tyranny triumphs either because ordinary people blindly follow orders or else because they mindlessly conform to powerful roles. Much of this consensus has been influenced by the work of Milgram and Zimbardo
However, more recently, British psychologists S. Alexander Haslam and Stephen D. Reicher have written numerous papers criticising these views. They argue that Milgram and Zimbardo were wrong in arguing that ‘ordinary men’ can become brutal by becoming mindless under the influence of leaders and groups.
Haslam and Reicher suggest that brutality occurs when people identify strongly with groups that have a brutal ideology. They believe that whether we listen to authorities or support victims depends upon the extent to which we perceive ourselves to share social identification with them. This argument is based on social identity theory.
They argue that there are three main factors determining whether people create and maintain such social identifications to groups with a brutal ideology
1 Individual differences
Haslam and Reicher suggest that people will be less likely to identify with groups with tyrannical norms the more that their membership of groups with different norms is salient and the more that they are made accountable to those alternative groups.
2 Contexts of crisis and group failure
Haslam and Reicher argue that some contexts make everyone more likely to accept certain groups. For example, groups become more authoritarian as such groups fail to function effectively and the overall system falls into chaos
Haslam and Reicher believe that the role of leaders become particularly dangerous when leaders suggest that ‘our’ problems come about because of the threats posed by a harmful out-group. In this way, they can begin to take the groups with which we already identify and develop norms of hostility against outsiders.
To read just one of the many articles by Haslam and Reicher click here.