Milgram Obedience Study / Stanford Prison Experiment / Social Cognition / Robbers Cave Experiment

Students of psychology would not be surprised by some of the key statements made by René Girard and his mimetic theory.

Indeed social psychology time and again shows how people’s social behavior and self-concepts are shaped by imitation processes and scapegoat mechanisms, as stressed by mimetic theory. For instance, Stanley Milgram’s obedience study and the Stanford Prison Experiment show how powerful individuals as well as socially established abstract norms of “role” models are easily obeyed (imitated). The attribution theory teaches how someone tends to “blame” circumstances to justify his or her own “bad” behavior, while, on the other hand, he or she tends to hold others personally responsible for their “loathsome” conduct. Apparently, others are not so easily excused and appear as convenient scapegoats. People who play the blame game consider their own behavior to be “very different” from similar behavior in others. Insights into social identities reveal how gaining an identity through conformity (again by imitating others, of course) leads to stereotyping of and competing with others (as common enemies and scapegoats of one’s group). Here also, there is a tendency to exaggerate differences between one’s own group and other groups. The conduct of one’s own group is easily justified, while similar conduct of a competing group is considered “unjust”. Achever Clausewitz (2007)The problem, of course, is that competing groups imitate this reasoning for their own particular group and thus reinforce the rivalry between each other (read René Girard’s Battling to the End in this regard, on mimetic rivalry on a planetary scale – highly recommended!).

These are all but some preliminary considerations regarding the relationship between mimetic theory and social psychology. There is much more to explore in this relationship. So without further ado, in order to know where to start, here is a short overview of some basic studies and concepts of social psychology which relate directly to mimetic theory.

1. Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Study (click for more information)

Stanley Milgram Obedience to AuthorityNot surprisingly, in light of mimetic theory, disobedience is more likely to occur:

  • when the experimenter leaves the room
  • when the orders are given by an “ordinary” man
  • when the subject works with peers who refuse to go on
  • [considering the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas]
    when the “learner” is in the same room

2. The Stanford Prison Experiment (Philip Zimbardo – click for more)

People adapt to the social norms of the role assigned to them. Prisoners become distressed, helpless and panicky. Guards become nice, or “tough but fair”, or tyrannical.

3. Social Cognition

Social cognition is an area of social psychology concerned with social influences on thought, memory, perception and all kinds of other cognitive processes. More specifically, researchers are interested in how people’s self-perception affects relationships, thoughts, beliefs and values. Here are some findings regarding attribution, factors in attitude change and conformity.

Attribution theory:

Attribution TheoryPeople are motivated to explain their own and others’ behavior by attributing its causes to situation or disposition. Again, not surprisingly in light of mimetic theory, people show the tendency to overestimate personality factors in explaining the behavior of others, while they underestimate situational influence. On the other hand, the concept of self-serving bias points to the fact that people often do the opposite when explaining their own behavior: people try to justify themselves.

Major factors in attitude change:

  • endorsement by an admired or attractive person
  • a leader who offers unconditional love, acceptance and attention
  • the creation of a new identity based on a group
  • repetition (imitation, indeed) of ideas and assertions; entrapment (justification of an escalating commitment); isolation from other sources of information

Conformity (click for more) (see also Solomon Asch, click here),

related to:

  • groupthink: in close-knit groups all members tend to think alike and suppress disagreement for the sake of harmony
  • diffusion of responsibility
  • bystander apathy
  • deindividuation (the loss of awareness of one’s own individuality in groups or crowds)
  • ethnocentrism
    (aids survival by making people feel attached to and willing to work for their own group)
  • group identity and social identity
    (a person’s self-concept based on an identification with a group, a nation or a culture, or with gender or other social roles)
  • Robbers Cave Experiment 1“us vs. them” social identities that are strengthened when groups compete (in-group vs. out-group; see Muzafer Sherif and his Robbers Cave experiment)
  • stereotypes that distort reality for they:
    exaggerate differences between groups and underestimate differences within groups; allow for disliking others so people feel closer to their own group and inflate self-worthRobbers Cave Experiment 2


Asch Experiment / Bystander Effect

In the 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch (1907-1996) published a series of studies that demonstrated the power of conformity in groups. His findings come as no surprise, since we, as human beings, have the natural tendency to imitate others… don’t we ;)? Because of this tendency we desire social recognition, and easily adapt ourselves to what others are doing – even if it doesn’t seem to make any sense.

The capacity to imitate others allows us to “walk in someone else’s shoes”, to imagine what others might expect and to be sensitive about those expectations. Hence, as said, the desire for social recognition springs from our imitative or mimetic tendencies.

Asch’s experiments were highly influential and directly inspired Stanley Milgram (1933-1984) and his studies of obedience to authority. In any case, these experiments are classical studies in the world of psychology, and naturally attract mimetic scholars – even if their theoretical framework is somewhat different from that of Asch and Milgram, and sustained by new empirical research from the neurosciences.

CLICK TO WATCH the Asch Conformity Experiment:

As proven by Milgram’s studies of obedience to authority and the later executed Stanford Prison Experiment, the way we adapt to our environment often leads to tragic situations. A variation of the Asch Conformity Experiment reveals how it can be comic as well.


Another interesting phenomenon from the point of view of mimetic theory is the so-called bystander effect. It shows how imitating others can foster mechanisms of exclusion and scapegoating impulses. “Why should I do what could equally be done by others?” seems to be the underlying question we use for avoiding our responsibility to help a person in need amidst a crowd.


These short films once again demonstrate how deeply embedded is the tendency to imitate what others are doing… or not doing…

Mirror Test

I came across a recording of an interview with Julian Paul Keenan, one of biopsychologist Gordon Gallup’s better known students. Keenan explains his mentor’s famous mirror test. I combined his explanation with scenes from The Human Ape, a documentary by National Geographic.


What this test demonstrates concerning the questions of self-awareness, consciousness and what it means to be human, is highly debated. It is clear, however, that increased mimetic abilities allow for higher levels of self-recognition, self-consciousness and empathy with others. The ability to duplicate myself (duplication is a kind of mimesis) allows me to imagine myself (being somewhere else, e.g. in the mirror) – this is the creation of a distance towards myself which allows me to reflect upon myself (increased self-awareness) and to put myself in someone else’s shoes (important for developing empathyof course empathy has positive and negative consequences; read more on this by clicking here).

These articles are worth exploring:

Can Animals Empathize? Yes (Gordon Gallup) – pdf

Empathy and Consciousness (Evan Thompson) – pdf

The Thief in the Mirror (Frans de Waal) – pdf

Reflections of Consciousness – The Mirror Test (Pentti Haikonen) – pdf