Nuffnang ad

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Happy 40th Birthday, Evil! (Revisiting The Stanford Prison Experiment)

Forty years ago today, Stanford researcher Dr. Philip Zimbardo conducted what would now be dubbed as "the most notorious psychology experiment of all time", the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE). It is a wealth of information and insight into humanity (or what we think we know of it), of how roles can define us, how powerful situations and self-images are - and, how evil and cruelty can manifest itself in seemingly "normal" human beings.

(Photo courtesy of

Zimbardo himself had to stop the experiment after only 6 days (Stanford researchers originally planned this to be a 2 week experiment) because the "guards" were bordering on sadism and behavior that was too shocking to behold.

Let's break it down.

Zimbrado had a print ad detailing the need for middle-class male subjects of college age to be part of an experiment. Accepted subjects would earn $15 a day for each day of the experiment. They were also subjected to pre-screening tests to ensure they were of sound mental and physical health.

Once selected, the experiment then began.

One clear day, several individuals (those who would be assigned as "prisoners" in this experiment).were rounded up by the "police" (wearing glasses, with complete uniforms and paraphernalia), blindfolded and brought to a facility (for "processing") that would become their prison.

They were stripped naked and then searched.

The degradation procedure was planned, partly to humiliate prisoners, and partly to ensure that they were not bringing any germs. ("Prisoners" were inspected for lice and given an anti-louse "hosing".)

"Guards" were instructed to never physically harm "prisoners" but they could pretty much do anything else that they deemed fit their "role".

"Prisoners" had on a heavy chain bolted on their right ankle at all times, and hairs were outfitted with a stocking cap made from women's nylon stocking (replacing the shaving that is done in actual prisons). They were given "smocks" but no undergarments. Immediately, researchers observed that "prisoners" started walking and sitting differently - more like a woman than a man.

They were assigned individual numbers, and no names were to be used, so the only means of identification were their given numbers. (On both the "prisoners" and "guards" parts.)

That meant making the prisoners feel helpless, with no control over the situation they were in, and making the "prisoners" feel that their fates were being determined by the "guards". Some were confined to solitary, others were given forced exercises like pushups. The general consensus of the finding was that once the "roles" assigned began to be imbibed into either group, they acted out accordingly.

At 230AM, the "prisoners" were rounded and lined up, made to say their numbers aloud. With both camps feeling out their roles that first night, the "prisoners" still asserted their individuality and the "guards" were still not that controlling - this would be the first of many confrontations between the two groups, which would devolve into the "guards" exhibiting more power and the "prisoners" getting into various states of mental distress. Pushups were instituted as punishment, with the "guards" either stepping on the backs of the "pushup-ee", or asking other "prisoners to do the "back-stepping".

A "rebellion" broke put the next day ("prisoners" took off their stockings) and the "guards" called in for reinforcements (the other subjects that weren't in the night shift), and they sprayed the fire extinguisher on the "rebels". They stripped the prisoners naked, got all their beds and placed the "rebellion leader" in solitary confinement.

The "guards" starting talking amongst themselves, that they couldn't possibly contain all the prisoners all the time (since they had shifts), so a solution was arrived at by themselves: They set up a "privilege cell", awarded to those who were the least involved in the "rebellion" - they had beds, a nice space and better food to eat than the rest, in full view of the other "prisoners".

Here's the kicker: "Guards" then exchanged the "prisoners", putting the rebellious ones in the "privilege cell", while the "good ones" went back to the regualr ones - which resulted in confusion for the "prisoners", making the "rebels" suspect the "good ones" as informers.

(Real life application: Guards in actual prisons try to stoke distrust and anger among the inmates themselves, thereby deflecting any danger that might have been directed to the guards onto each other.)

Bathroom privileges were under the strict control of the "guards". "Prisoners" had a bucket in their cells to urinate and defecate when they weren't allowed to use the bathroom, and at a certain point, these buckets weren't collected, making the cells filled with the stench of human waste - adding more to the degradation.

One of the "guards" puts it quite tellingly:

"I really thought I was incapable of this kind of behavior, I was really dismayed that…I could act in a manner so absolutely unaccustomed to anything I would ever really dream of doing. And while I was doing it, I didn’t feel any regret, I didn’t feel any guilt. It was only afterwards, after I began to reflect on what I had done that this began to dawn on me and I realized that this was a part of me I hadn’t really noticed before.”

After a mere 36 hours, one of the "prisoners" had to be released because he was suffering distress, fatigue and started acting out in anger and desperation.

To see the full experiment as narrated by Zimbardo himself, click on this link:

I find it fascinating that this study isn't disseminated more. (I certainly did not encounter it back during my undergraduate days as a psychology major.) One of the things I took away from reading this horrific, telling experiment is that we can never, ever be sure of how we will act until we are in the situation ourselves.

Zimbardo himself made this astute observation: "The study makes a very profound point about the power of situations — that situations affect us much more than we think, that human behavior is much more under the control of subtle situational forces, in some cases very trivial ones, like rules and roles and symbols and uniforms, and much less under the control of things like character and personality traits than we ordinarily think as determining behavior.”

This makes me think of the anecdotal observation made that Filipinos abroad are some of the most law-abiding members of their (particular foreign) society. Could it be that the cues that Filipinos get from those particular instances and places make it "easier" for them to follow the rules? And if this is true, then it follows that the situation in our own country makes it equally conducive to wantonly disregard the same rules, think of pocketing millions and even billions from the public coffers which we "normally" wouldn't do...which is blatantly in direct contradiction to the "claim" that we are a "religious, moral" society.

I am not holding perpetrators of evil and injustice free from their actions. But if our environment and the roles that we assign ourselves - or have been bred by others into our own systems that we believe these to be true - are much more powerful than we ever realized, then this may be the jumping off point for anyone wishing to institute behavioral changes on a massive scale.

As I've always maintained, all of us have that equal capacity for both good and evil. What's chilling is that, like that "guard" observed, we may not feel any remorse or guilt at all while engaging in evil because it is "expected" of us, by forces both within and outside.

Something to think about, thanks to Dr. Zimbardo.

No comments:

Post a Comment