The Psychology of Power and Authority

In a literal sense, authority is a legal ability and authorization to exercise power, while power is the ability to control authority. In the Stanford Prison Experiment, the lead researcher Phillip Zimbardo gave 12 of the participants the role of the guard, the authority figure. When people obtain an authoritative role in society, they have the power to use it for good or evil. Power implies that people have the ability to influence or control others or to get things done by others. Naturally, power relates to the relationship or interaction between two or more than people. In most cases, there is an unequal distribution of power between these people and often times, this power is used to manipulate or control. The 12 guards in the simulated prison used their authoritative figure to exercise their power over the prisoners. While in this particular scenario, the participants have the power over the prisoners, overall, Phillip Zimbardo is the true authority figure. He was the one who emulated this experiment and allowed these 12 participants to have the role of authority transferred to them. Zimbardo instructed these guards to do anything they can to dominate and control the prisoners, without the use of physical force. When given the opportunity, these guards literally did everything they could in the allotted time to establish their role as the ones that have all of the power. After the experiment ended, most of the guards had felt remorseful for their behavior. Zimbardo’s actions to instruct these guards to find ways to exercise their power over the prisoners was excessive, but Zimbardo had allowed it. Was it really wrong for them to act that way if they were told to do so?

In the blog post I’ve previously written about Abu Ghraib and the extreme abuse that the prisoners had faced, most of the people responsible had used the fact that they were in a war and that their executive officer had simply told them to do it. When people are put in situations where they are told to do something for the sake of their country, a lot is at stake. While these actions committed by these military officers were very heinous and sadistic, it is important to recognize that their role in this situation is very difficult. On one hand, they must find the answers they are looking for from these prisoners to protect their country, so they must use any force necessary. However, the extreme maltreatment of these prisoners could have simply been avoided if the executive military officer had used his authority to use these methods of interrogation in a less abusive way. His obedience to the country had given him an excuse to use such force against these prisoners. An article on talks about the psychology of power and authority. It states, “if you internalize “obedience to authority” as a core personality trait you will become capable of the worst forms of murder, and tolerant of the worst forms of abuse,”  (“Psychology of Power and Authority – IslamiCity”, 2017). The executive officer was obedient to his country and the other military officers were obedient to the executive, meaning that they were willing to do literally anything to protect their country. On the other hand, the prisoners were deeply controlled and submissive, so their obedience left them susceptible to the extreme abuses they faced, without the ability to speak up or fight back. Power and authority is a tricky concept that is often times difficult to define, but looking at both the Stanford Experiment and Abu Ghraib, we can see the different times where this concept is applied. 

Source: Psychology of Power and Authority – IslamiCity. (2017). Retrieved 9 December 2017, from


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