Dehumanization of victims fosters a culture of perceived power and cruelty from perpetrators.
- 1How can perceived power affect how someone may act?
Prepare students by telling them the preface of the Stanford Prison Experiment; that it was a social psychology experiment to investigate the psychological effect of perceived power and dehumanization of the “other.” While this study was put into the context of a standard prison, it has often been used to help explain the psychology of perpetrators during the Holocaust.
Explain that many perpetrators signed up to work at a concentration camp or killing center and that there are countless stories of unnecessary brutality from many of the SS guards.
Play the BBC Documentary about the Stanford Prison Experiment (29 minutes). Explain to students that while this was a real study that took place, the ethics of it were questioned and regulations for social experiments have since been put into place. Some question the validity of this study as some students may have been playing up their roles to give the researcher “something to work with.” However, even if some actions were played up, it can still help to stir a conversation about the effects of dehumanization and authority.
After the video, open up a class discussion about what they saw. Many students will have strong opinions about this video, so the discussion may be led in different directions. The questions below are meant to guide you, but you can also let the conversation flow naturally. It is most important that the conversation is brought back to the context of the Holocaust.
- What did you find the most shocking?
- What were the effects on the guards? On the prisoners?
- As mentioned in the beginning with the example of Milgram’s experiment, how does the presence of an authoritative person “taking the blame” affect how people act?
- How can this be related to perpetrators of the Holocaust?
- What sort of tactics did they use to dehumanize the prisoners?
- How did the uniform the guards wore help to disconnect them from the prisoners? *Hint* Think about their eyewear.
- What role do you think “herd mentality” (the act of adopting certain behaviors based on influence from peers) played in people’s participation?
Wisconsin Academic Standards
This lessons meets the following Academic Standards required by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.