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Social Psychology in Relation to the Holocaust

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Abby Smith

on 1 August 2014

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Transcript of Social Psychology in Relation to the Holocaust

We have learned about four studies on social psychology. We’ve learned how people get into a mob mentality and follow a small group of people. We’ve seen how people conform to what others are doing, and how a bad situation affects someone drastically. We’ve also studied how people tend to obey their authority. Can we now start to answer how the Nazis “just followed orders?”

The Milgram Obedience Study
The Stanford Prison Experiment
The Asch Conformity Experiment
This experiment tested a person’s individuality in a situation when others are doing one thing the subject wants to do another.

The first study we will look at to understand how people act in groups is the Leeds University Herd Mentality study. The Herd Mentality (or mob mentality) Study explains how people can be subconsciously manipulated into following another person or group.

Herd/Mob Mentality
"Just Following Orders"
During the Holocaust, millions of people were killed by previously innocent, normal men. Their defense? They were "just following orders." So how is it that all of these Nazi soldiers abandoned their morals, and followed orders? Many social psychology studies have been done surrounding this topic. I've picked out four social experiments that help us understand how it was all possible.

The Herd Mentality study
The Asch Conformity Experiment
The Milgram Obedience Study
The Stanford Prison Experiment

The Four Experiments:
To start, we should define what mob mentality is. Mob mentality describes how people are influenced by their peers to adopt certain behaviors and follow trends. It’s the idea that people will tend to follow someone, or act a certain way because others are doing it. This mentality is why people follow trends. The concept is important to understanding the Nazi society because people blindly followed Hitler; this study helps us grasp why.

What is Herd/Mob Mentality?
Social Psychology in Relation to the Holocaust

At the University of Leeds, Professor Krause and his student John Dyer conducted an experiment on decision making based on other people’s actions. For the experiment, Krause and Dyer asked a large group to walk aimlessly around a large hall. Then, he asked a much smaller group to walk around with specific directions. No one participating could talk or communicate, but they had to stand close to one another. The people without directions would follow the ones who had directions and looked like they knew what they were doing. During the study debriefing, almost all participants without specific directions didn't realize they had followed the participants who had been given direction.

The researchers discovered that it only takes 5% of a population to lead, the other 95% will follow. Think about that. If you had a group of 200 people, it would only take 10 of them to lead everyone. Now relate that back to Nazi Germany. In the beginning, the Nazi party was tiny! They were a tiny fraction of the population. But soon they grew, and Hitler’s ideals started trending. His popularity was the result of a trend started by a miniscule group of people.

The Procedure
The Results
MIT's Follow Up Study
After the Herd Mentality experiment, researchers at MIT wanted to know why people will follow others so easily, and what kinds of people are the most susceptible to mob mentality. They, like so many, wanted to know how and why good people do bad things (especially while in groups).

MIT researchers knew that in groups, people ignore personal responsibility and tend to feel safe doing things they would not do on their own. The researchers wanted to know who would be most likely to fall under this kind of group mentality. They discovered that people who can’t discern group and self are the most likely to fall under mob mentality. It does seem rather obvious, I know. The more relevant information they found is that people with a stronger sense of self are less likely to lose their personal morals. Those who have a harder time differentiating group from self are much more likely to lose their personal morals. The loss of personal morals means a person will adapt to someone else’s morals, they are much more likely to be manipulated.
Who is Susceptible to Mob mentality?
From this study, we can conclude that most Nazi soldiers had very little sense of self. With a lack of self, soldiers would accept Hitler’s morals instead of their own. The people with a strong sense of self were most likely the people resisting Hitler’s ideals.

Psychologists had to find out how people are influenced by the decisions of others. They came up with a test to see how one person would react when everyone else was doing one thing but they wanted to do another. To start the test, one person would go and sit down at a table with 7 other people. The one person, the test subject, would be given two cards, one card with 1 line and one card with 3 lines. The subject was told to look at the card with 1 line and match its length to one of the lines on the card with 3 lines. The other 7 people at the table were part of the experiment. They would deliberately give the wrong answer. The experiment was to see if the test subject would change their answer based on what the others at the table said.
75% of all the test subjects deliberately changed their answer at least once to conform to the group. When asked why, some replied that they didn’t want to be ridiculed. Others thought the group was right. The experiment showed that people conform for two reasons: They want to fit in, or they believe that the rest of the group is right.
So how does this relate to the Holocaust? Well imagine if you lived in Nazi Germany during that time. Millions of people were joining the Nazi party every year. What would you have done? I’m sure you would be judged, ridiculed, maybe even harassed if you didn’t join when the Nazis held power. Conformity is part of society after all.
Dr. Zimbardo, head of the Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted one of the more well known social psychology experiments about good people in bad situations. His driving question was “what happens when you put good people in a bad situation? Will the good of humanity win or will evil defeat humanity?”

To answer this question, he proposed an experiment in a prison environment. He put an ad for male college students to participate in a psychological study of prison life. 24 of the applicants were accepted, and the experiment began. In a completely random way, 12 were chosen to be prisoners and 12 were chosen to be guards. The prisoners would stay at the prison for 24 hours when the guards had 8 hour shifts and were allowed to go home afterward. The participants knew this was an experiment, though over the next days it became more and more real.

His Experiment
In the prison set up, there were no rules. The “guards” weren’t told to act a certain way, and the “prisoners” weren’t told to act like they prisoners. In fact, nobody was required to do anything other than be in the prison when they were supposed to be. But after 2 to 3 days, the guards started harassing the prisoners. They would be forced to clean toilets and do hours of push ups. Many were put in “solitary confinement” for being “bad prisoners.” Things in the prison were changing, people were changing. The power the guards had over them made the prisoners feel like they were really in jail.

The Experiment Progresses
By the fourth day, the prisoners started showing signs of anxiety and depression. The test had to be ended on the 6th day because everyone was forgetting that it was only an experiment; even the main researcher Dr. Zimbardo started to take on the role of superintendent of the prison.

Things Get Worse
After six days, normal college men were changed in to brutal guards and oppressed prisoners. Imagine being a Nazi guard for years. After that much time, how far could the guards have gone? This experiment showed that in a bad situation, a person’s inner evil can triumph over good. Though that may not be true for all cases, it seems to be a reoccurring theme.

Stanley Milgram had studied the Holocaust, and he wondered how so many people could be manipulated into doing so many bad things. He thought about the fear factor the Nazi soldiers faced, and wondered what would happen if the fear was taken away. This experiment was based on that thought.

The last experiment to help us understand the social psychology of the Holocaust is the Milgram Obedience Study. Out of all the experiments, this one struck me as the most shocking.

"The social psychology of this century reveals a major lesson: often it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act."
–Stanley Milgram, 1974

Milgram created an experiment to test if a person would carry out orders without any real obligation. He had two people come in, one would be randomly chosen to be the teacher and one to be the learner. The teacher was watched by the experimenter. The teacher would read a word puzzle to the learner, and every time the learner got an answer wrong they would get a shock. The learner was really just an actor, so nobody really got hurt; but the teacher didn’t know that.

During the experiment, the subject/teacher would keep rising the shock level with each wrong answer. If the subject/teacher protested to the shocking the experimenter would tell them one of these four lines: “Please continue,” “the experiment requires you to continue,” “it is absolutely essential that you continue,” and “you have no other choice but to continue.” If the subject/teacher protested more than four times, they were done. You would think that a person would protest to shocking another person more than four times, right? Wrong. Most of the subject/teachers did protest and were uncomfortable, but 60% of all the teachers went past a highly dangerous level of shock.

The conclusion Milgram reached is that humans are likely to take orders from an authority figure. It’s how we are brought up: to obey authority. Think about being a Nazi. Not only as humans do we obey authorities, they had a fear factor too. If you disobeyed a superior, you and your family were put in danger. You would also be an outcast, you would be the person who doesn’t follow orders like everyone else does. Think about it. What would you have done?

What Have We Learned?
I do not support the Nazis in any way, but these experiments show that this is a “human problem”. I can understand how they were manipulated. As humans, we want to fit in, we want to impress the people above us. How do we learn to think for ourselves and think with our heart?
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