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


Each Its Culture Until the Refugee Threat

Modern democracy makes it possible for each individual citizen to hold, express and exercise ‘own’ opinions and ethical principles, ‘own’ religious views and ‘own’ cultural preferences as long as they do not go against the democratically established laws of a particular state. A society of such individuals should, by its very nature, become ‘multicultural’ and ‘multi-religious’. And yet, what often happens is that many people insist on having their very ‘own’ opinion while the specific content of that opinion is the same as nearly everyone else’s. So the paradox is that a mono-culture arises of citizens who all understand themselves in the same way: as being autonomous individuals who make their own choices and pursue their own projects. This is the cultural mantra of the West. The very idea of having ‘own ideas’ is more important than really having them.

down with conformity

In reality, ‘diversity’ is often not defined in terms of specific values or belief systems (be it theist or atheist convictions and opinions), but in terms of economic value. Hence ‘culture’ becomes a matter of ‘taste’ and ‘lifestyle’ more than anything else. The more people believe that they have their own individuality to construct or to express, the more manufacturers and producers can launch something ‘original’ to satisfy the self-concept of potential consumers.

Be like all your friends and express your individualityConformity Homogeneous Originality

cultural conformity cartoon

It should be noted that producers want to make money. They want to launch ‘the next trend’ rather than satisfy the supposedly very specific demands of one very unique individual. In other words, the illusion that we are autonomous individuals (mensonge romantique in the words of René Girard) who constantly have to make own choices keeps us at the marketplace where we are offered competing choices by different producers. [Moreover, we wouldn’t experience the desire to be original if we were.] Commercials make use of powerful models to guide these choices and that’s how, eventually and again paradoxically, new types of conformity are established (as people imitate those powerful models and each other – for more on this, read La Mode(rnity), a previous post).


It is remarkable how some people, who are convinced that they have very own individual opinions and views, all of a sudden make reference to something like “our culture, our values, our convictions and our habits” when they are confronted with “strangers”. Some voices in Europe consider the refugees as a threat to their particular state, both economically and culturally. Moreover, it is often the so-called ‘cultural difference’ that is presented as one of the main obstacles to social and economic integration of refugees. Multiculturalism Tolerance CartoonOnce again, as so many times in the history of mankind, it is the perception of a common threat or enemy that structures a common identity – past internal differences that, in light of that common threat, eventually don’t seem very fundamental. See, for instance, how the German Emperor Wilhelm II (1859-1941) begins his speech at the outbreak of the first world war (Source: Kriegs-Rundschau I, p. 43 – Original German text reprinted in Wolfdieter Bihl, ed. Deutsche Quellen zur Geschichte des Ersten Weltkrieges [German Sources on the History of the First World War]. Darmstadt, 1991, p. 49; Translation: Jeffrey Verhey) – Berlin, August 1, 1914:

“I thank all of you for the love and loyalty that you have shown me these past days. These were serious days, like seldom before. Should it now come to a battle, then there will be no more political parties. I, too, was attacked by the one or the other party. That was in peace. I forgive you now from the depths of my heart. I no longer recognize any parties or any confessions; today we are all German brothers and only German brothers. If our neighbors want it no other way, if our neighbors do not grant us peace, then I hope to God that our good German sword will see us through to victory in these difficult battles.”

Let us hope that we Europeans, faced with the refugees coming to Europe, do acknowledge our internal cultural diversity so that we might discover in a new light our shared humanity as living out the possibility that the other may be truly ‘other’.