You may have heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment. It was conducted by a psychology professor, Philip Zimbardo, at Stanford University in 1971. In brief, he set up a prison in the basement of the university and divided a group of students into "guards" and "prisoners". The aim was to see how easily the "guards" could slip into their roles and perhaps take it to extremes, as well as seeing how the "prisoners" accepted their roles and how they behaved. Anyone could leave at any time (but only two students did leave early). Zimbardo decided to stop the experiment after six days because some of the guards had resorted to psychological torture, and Zimbardo himself realised that he was allowing it. The experiment has often been cited to show how normal, sane people can become bullies and even torturers when the situation encourages them to so so; and how "prisoners" can passively accept their fate.
In 2002 the BBC decided to repeat the experiment, but in a more careful way. It's described on the study's website. The conclusions are more nuanced, but it's particularly interesting that a rebellion by the prisoners was successful.
What has all this got to do with the normal topics of this blog? Well, I thought about it yesterday when the comments were mounting up about the behaviour of some Jobcentre and WP staff. They are, in a sense, the "guards". They could just as easily have been the "prisoners", the clients, but having been given the role of power, some can slip easily into authoritarian attitudes and bullying. They are under pressure from the group. Compassion is discouraged. "You park your conscience at the door," as Polly Toynbee's correspondent said. Indeed, if you don't join in you will lose your role, i.e. your job. And this is being directed from above; you not only have permission to behave brutally, you are being told to do so. The "prisoners" are powerless. Rebellion would require the sort of co-ordinated action which is seen as impossible.
I'm reluctant to explore this any further. Read up on the experiments and see what you think.