In psychology, reasons for human behavior can be divided into two factors; dispositional and situational. Dispositional factors pertain to internal specific characteristics a person possesses, such as their personality and such unchanging features. Situational factors on the other hand are external influences on a person outside of their control not dependent on the person themselves, but the surrounding environment and circumstances. The problem for psychologists is to what extent findings on human behavior can be explained through situational factors, and not factors of the individual themselves.
One of the most renowned studies supporting the significance of situational factors is the Stanford Prison study by Zimbardo (1971), where the effects of empowerment on a person's behavior were explored. The study involved 24 participants, selected from a larger pool of 70 undergraduate white male volunteers due to their lack of any criminal background, psychological and medical issues. The 24 participants were randomly divided into two groups; prison guards and prisoners. In a simulated prison environment, in the basement of Stanford university, the guards essentially had all control over the prisoners.
Originally the simulation was intended to last a full two weeks, however the predicted results occurred much quicker and more intensively than expected. The guards had taken a position of abuse towards the prisoners, who themselves were suffering from stress and anxiety, causing an early termination of the experiment. Zimbardo theorized that the placing the guards in a position of power caused these otherwise normal people to act in such an unorthodox manner compared to their everyday life. The same applies to the prisoners who lost all control they held, soon experiencing features of depression and became passive.
The study has been widely criticized however, be it due to it's lack of ethical or ecological validity, as well as the very restricted sample of participants. Most importantly in the lens of the extent situational factors effect human behavior, the lack of ecological validity is an issue. Despite all attempts to make the prison as authentic as possible, it's impossible to recreate such an environment. Real prisons involve actual criminals, as well as a proper facility, and don't allow for the counseling that the Stanford prison provided. All participants knew they were partaking in an experiment, and were assigned roles. In that knowledge, it's not extreme to assume that some guards merely saw themselves emulating what they imagined a guard to be, and not how they would act as a guard in a real life situation, and as such cannot be applied effectively to real life. Although, that line of thought may imply that the situational factor that was the experiment and it's authority caused the participants to act as they did which then insinuates that situational factors have the potency to cause people to act in very abnormal ways.
An interesting observation in Zimbardo's study was that not all the guards acted in overt aggression, yet displayed no intent to prevent harm or misconduct. Behavior of this fashion can be applied to authoritative influence, where the influence of the experimenters or perhaps the more forward guards caused the other guards to simply comply to whatever happened. Behavior such as this can be described as conformity, where a person may go along with something they might find wrong, but think the majority or authority think otherwise. Behavior of this fashion is fairly commonplace in everyday life, for example when a group of friends use a certain message board or social networking platform, you'll join them despite it not being your favorite. This is conformity more out of necessity than anything else, even the guards may have felt some sort of necessity to act as they did due to, for example, the pressure of...