Over forty years ago, the Stanford Prison experiment made headlines. Students were randomly assigned to roles as prisoners or guards, and as the traditional story goes, things so out of hand the experiment had to be shut down early. "Guards" became tyrannical and abusive and "prisoners" overly submissive. This experiment has been used for decades to show this tendency to abuse power rests in all of us, not to far under the surface. However, recent analyses have complicated these findings. Another psychologist team (working with the BBC documentary department) recreated the experiment, but didn't prime guards to in anyone become physical or abusive, they were only told to keep the prison running. There were opposite results - no guards were able to mount a successful regime and for most part seemed wary of their authority. Which turns the Stanford Prison Experiment on its head by suggesting not that we are wannabe tyrants, but that we act in expected ways (whether that is in a role of domination, submission, or somewhere in between). Institutions foster these expectations. These realizations may help policy change in the realm of police brutality and other abuses of authority: "The lesson of Stanford isn't that any random human being is capable of descending into sadism and tyranny. It's that certain institutions and environments demand these behaviors - and perhaps, can change them."
Taken together, these two studies don’t suggest that we all have an innate capacity for tyranny or victimhood. Instead, they suggest that our behavior largely conforms to our preconceived expectations. All else being equal, we act as we think we’re expected to act—especially if that expectation comes from above. Suggest, as the Stanford setup did, that we should behave in stereotypical tough-guard fashion, and we strive to fit that role. Tell us, as the BBC experimenters did, that we shouldn’t give up hope of social mobility, and we act accordingly.