With Roles, Comes Power

Peter Keo


English 2

26 March 2019

With Roles, Come Power

When a person with a given role has more authority, they are more inclined to abuse it against people that they perceive as “less than.” For a vast majority of mankind’s history, a person’s status quo affects their makeup and credibility as a human being. In an interconnected web that is so deeply complex like a simple community, the people with authority act based on their power, and not their morals or values. Rather than having their pride shattered, their egos ripped apart, or their words proven wrong, they choose to unleash their power because that is the only thing of value to them. Without the said power, they are more or less equal to their counterparts. This creates a power dynamic between higher authority and the people who follow it. If a society has a set of defined roles and rules, how can it be fair for everyone?

The Stanford Prison Experiment was an infamous social experiment conducted in 1973. It took place at Stanford University and was led by psychologist Philip Zimbardo. The experiment featured 24 men; 12 given the role of prisoners and the other 12 given the roles of prison guards. Over the course of two weeks, they would live together in a simulated prison experiment. According to the official website of the Stanford Prison Experiment, a quote that was taken from the planning of the experiment said “We wanted to see what the psychological effects were of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. To do this, we decided to set up a simulated prison and then carefully note the effects of this institution on the behavior of all those within its walls.” (Prisonexp.org, FAQ) In other words, it was meant to display how much power a person can have just by their labels and status quos. The experiment was shut down only six days in, and the results showed that prisoners suffered countless abuse from the prison guards, even though before the experiment they were all equal in terms of power. One way guards exhibited their power was striking prisoners with their baton. When given the role of a higher authority, the probability to commit a power trip increases tenfold.

In Lord of the Flies by William Golding, a group of boys just crashed and landed on an island. They all come amongst each other in order to build a basis of civilization. In order to do that, they first choose among them a leader based on a majority of votes. The author writes “‘Shut up,’ said Ralph absently. He lifted the conch. ‘Seems to me we ought to have a chief to decide things.’ ‘A chief! A chief!’ ‘I ought to be chief,’ said Jack with simple arrogance, ‘because I'm chapter chorister and head boy. I can sing C sharp’” (Golding 229-231) This shows that Jack immediately comes to step up in order to take on the role of a leader because of his so-called “abilities.” His proclaimed skills of being able to sing C sharp and also that he already holds a leadership position shows an underlying nature to Jack’s human tendencies.  The choirboys that are associated with Jack reluctantly raise their hands to vote for him. This shows that they may have done this out of fear to not get on Jack’s bad side, or because of naturally wanting to side with Jack because of their already established relationship.

Following the conclusion of the Stanford Prison Experiment, an interview was conducted with one of the participants. He said, “The most apparent thing that I noticed was how most of the people in this study derive their sense of identity and well-being from their immediate surroundings rather than from within themselves… they had nothing within them to hold up against all of this.” (Zimbardo, exhibits.stanford.edu) The prisoner in question, Jerry-8454, provides a hint that helps conclude there was a lining of savagery present during the experiment. This means that when given a set of defined roles that carry different levels of power, there is bound to be chaos and a disconnect of power in a definite society. They become a shell of their former selves and begin to act differently than their normal selves would.

In one scene, Ralph and Jack are in an argument about how much value being chosen as a leader holds. They provide two drastically views on the situation, with one side not budging over the other. The author writes “‘I'm chief. I was chosen.’ ‘Why should choosing make any difference? Just giving orders that don't make any sense—’” (Golding 238-241). What is being represented here is that Golding is essentially writing Jack and Ralph as symbols for two different sides in a common debate. In the case of the Stanford Prison Experiment, one could argue for Jack and Ralph that one of them is the guard with power and one of them is the prisoner who wants power because of the way that power is handled on the island. The choosing of a leader bears some resemblance to how the way the guards were chosen, and the definition of a person based on their role is represented in the boys’ community. If the roles were reversed then, the results would still be the same.

Based on the results of the Stanford Prison Experiment and the events that occur throughout Lord of the Flies, it is safe to assume that defined roles in an established community set different amounts of power throughout everyone. There is a much-needed gap-closer between the abyss that is people with authority, and people who are simply following authority. One word being placed as a label can define the decision making and emotions of one person. A community of people is only just a group of people if there is no leader to place authority in them, but power must be controlled or else, it will get out of hand. With power, there is no morals or values if the commodity of power can stimulate instant gratification.

Works Cited

Golding, William, Lord of the Flies. Penguin Books, 2006

“More Information.” Stanford Prison Experiment, Social Psychology Network, 1999


Zimbardo, Philip G., Jerry Shure, Stanford Prison Experiment