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The Stanford Experiment

What would you do if you were given the power to literally control another person’s every move?   What if the power to control your own life was taken away?   Very few people live through the thought process of what many others have to everyday.  What if you lived in Iran, North Korea, Russia, or simply prison.

In an experiment conducted in 1971 by psychologist Philip Zimbardo, a group of 15 paid volunteers were selected to be assigned the role of either prisoner or guard  A fake prison was set up in the basement of a college building and roles were assigned by a coin toss.

Within the first day, the guards — told to maintain control, but given no specifics beyond being told not to use physical violence — became psychologically and physically abusive. You can see them warming up to the role very quickly.

The prisoners also adapted to their new role, even taking on new identities and losing a sense of their own personalities. A priest comes to evaluate them and finds that the prisoners refer to themselves by their numbers.

The morality and sanity of the scene begins to decline, the viewer has a deep sense of alarm, though you both understand and expect the results. The descent into the depths happens so rapidly, when the film announces the end of day one, you have to be startled. How could things go so wrong so fast? The experiment was supposed to last two weeks.

In the following days, the guards, determined only to control the prisoners, resort to quasi-torture to elicit compliance. They set up rooms for privileged people and rooms for punished people. They hoped for a dynamic whereby prisoners aspire to move from one to the other. What they got was a series of psychological breakdowns, deep depression, panic, terror, and a general atmosphere for freaking out. It was so bad that the psychologist, fearing legal trouble, ended the experiment after only 6 days. It just couldn’t go on.

The psychologist himself even found himself drawn in, playing the role of the prison supervisor and tolerating far more humiliation and abuse than he should have. It was only once his girlfriend intervened with a dose of reality that he snapped out of it.

Experiments such as these are now mostly banned by the profession because they are considered unethical. They probably are, but it is a shame that we lack the ability to study the phenomenon of authority more extensively. This study, together with the famous Milgram study, tell us more about human nature than we like to admit in many contexts.

How much does prison, and the power of being a prison guard, transform a person?  None of us are totally above it. Power over others is the golden ring, something that reaches into the darkest parts of our soul and brings them to the surface.  Power is such a corrupting force in the human heart that it can overcome the best intentions, the most earnest ethical training, the strongest faith in transcendence, and even the meekest of temperaments.  How many times have we heard, “just doin’ my job” as a way of justifying a controlling and unethical behavior.  This is also the most common defense used by accused prisoners when on trial for War Crimes.

The replacement of power with respect is a priority for human well being. That’s the lesson of the Stanford Prison Experiment. But it’s not the only lesson. Even in the absence of unjust power, humane cooperation between people requires something else: opportunities and incentives to value each other as human beings. This is the glorious gift that freedom gives society. It helps us find value in each other and inspires others to find value in us.

If we took this lesson to heart, the world would look very different.

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