The (Dys) Function of Authority

The Stanford Prison Experiment

The simulated situation depicting a prison cell was part of an experiment set up by Zimbardo and his team. The research was around-

‘What happens to normal people when they are put in a situation where they have authority over others?’ The team also wanted to observe the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or a prison guard.

In this case, it was prison guards who had the power over prisoners. Mentally balanced, intelligent, and diverse volunteers were randomly selected and divided into groups to be acting as prisoners and guards.

Result- Planned two weeks of experiment was abruptly terminated only after six days!

The situation went out of control. “GOOD”, “NORMAL” youngsters chosen to become guards were depicting a sadistic character, inflicted pain on fellow prisoners, who were but fellow students. In fact, they were doing it without any compunction. “BALANCED” youngsters who were mimicking prisoners had emotional breakdowns. The guards who did not indulge in abuse themselves, still failed to confront the evil, despite knowing it was just an experiment.


Well that’s the thing with Authority. Whether it is about using the power or position in a coercive manner or it is about polite and nice manoeuvres to achieve the end, authority is all about getting people to conform and sustain the set structure. In the above example, it was all about guards trying to discipline prisoners so as to sustain the model on which a prison runs, and to conform to accepted notion of how prisoners are supposed to be treated. Underlying both, was a perception that group simulating guards have an ‘authoritative edge’ over the other group.

Our introduction to authority and this structure happens initially out of dependence.

In order to survive, we need to listen to do’s and don’ts of our parents, they are life skills for an infant. To learn something new, for education, for a technical know-how, we go to our teachers because they know something which we don’t. There is a structure in society, at work, in democracy or in regimes, in relationships, in bureaucracy, or in spiritual world, in business, in all kind of institutions that rely on a particular order or a system. All this is but, ingraining authority in our daily lives. Rebelling against it, breeds fear, of isolation, of seclusion, of failure.

However, the need to feel secure makes us follow. The point isn’t, how this model is about sustaining things and providing a method to be functional. The point is how authority, so deeply imbibed in our structures and psyche effects our actions, purpose and pursuits.

Positions of Authority (or power or position) create a divide- there is a teacher and his pupils, a boss and subordinates, a guru and his disciples, a head of family and family-members and so on.

There is therefore, someone who knows more, is superior, and in a position that is higher to us- figuratively or psychologically, and literally. We start to judge and evaluate power that others have in relation to our own. Our interactions, instructions, and behaviour, thus, start to get guided from this position of perceived dominance or followership.

Therefore, when we are in positions of authority, others start to appear small. And that is what gets into our heads and may determine our subsequent actions at that point. An action that is often governed by entitlement, superiority, and status.

Isn’t there an inherent contradiction then? How can a structure based on these elements even remotely achieve what it aims to?

Can authority ever lead to a free mind?

Can it breed anything but followership (for good or bad)?

What is that fine line which divides good authority Vs bad when its very construct is division?

Can anything which is not harmonious, even remotely, lead to coherence whether in organizations, or business, or relationships?

Can leadership, whether political, social or in business, exist without authority then? Isn’t this the reason why the most sought after positions of power are the very epicentre of conflict?

Well, perhaps that is why our adherence to the best of the systems often fail to produce results.

Probably that is why conformity can only produce mediocrity. And that is why leaders who are supposed to lead us to harmony fail to give a solution that is conflict free. Because the very plinth on which these are constructed is misplaced, manipulative and hypocrititical. Which brings to mind words from Abraham Lincoln, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”