In August 1971, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo and a team of researches conducted an experiment in the basement of Stanford University wherein 24 perfectly normal, healthy male college students took on roles of prisoners and guards. The purpose of the Stanford Prison Experiment was to study the effects of situational forces on both sets of participants: how would the guards respond to their new positions of power, and how would prisoners respond to being stripped of their identity and freedom? I’ll sum it up for you quickly: given the right situation, it appears that just about all of us have the capacity to be total dicks.
The speed with which the prisoners seemed to lose their identity and take on the role of prisoner was impressive; however, the real surprise of the experiment was the intensity with which the guards embraced their new roles. Although they were told they could not physically harm the prisoners, they were free to employ whatever mental harassment they could come up with, including solitary confinement and sleep deprivation; they repeatedly made the prisoners get up in the middle of the night to count off their “numbers” and repeat the rules of the prison in mind-numbing repetition. (It seems to me that sleep deprivation would be physically harmful, but I’m no torture expert.) When one prisoner goes on a hunger strike, the guards force him to “make love” to his dinner sausages, ordering him to hug, caress, and kiss them. When he still refuses to eat, they try to force the sausages down his throat. At one point towards the end of the experiment, the guards humiliate a prisoner by forcing him to mime intercourse with the ground.
Have I mentioned that all of this happened within a span of 6 days?
The roles or prisoner and guard were assigned completely at random and all potential participants were carefully screened to make sure they were mentally stable (i.e., not prone to nervous breakdowns or predisposed to be assholes). From the experiment, Zimbardo concludes that, “We overemphasize personality in explaining any behavior while concurrently underemphasizing situational influences.” In other words, we are constantly explaining bad behavior as the work of “bad apples,” instead of looking at the “bad barrel” to see how the situation can be corrected.
All of this is very interesting and I wish I could recommend this book; however, I’ve pretty much told you most of what you need to know. So unless you are getting a graduate degree in psychology, please just read the Wikipedia entry on the Stanford Prison Experiment and save yourself time.
I’m probably being unfair; this is, after all, a detailed study of an experiment, but the author’s writing made me want to go out and do some waterboarding. In Chapter 2, Zimbardo describes how he talked the Stanford police into “arresting” the prisoners for his experiment, to lend authenticity to the volunteers’ loss of freedom and start the experiment off with a little flair. He recounts his conversations with the Palo Alto police department officers in dialogue that wouldn’t cut it on Cinemax. The officers conveniently provide a framework for exposition, saying things like “I’m a little confused about a couple of things,” and “Yes, I guess it makes sense the way you put it.” I know I’m being picky, but couldn’t he have found a graduate student willing to ghost write this thing for him? The last straw was when he referenced the Milgram Experiment as having “shocking results” (wink, wink). Good God, who was the editor on this?
But enough of my literary critique. I found myself getting irritated as well with the glee with which Zimbardo set out to conduct his experiment, starting with the “arrest” and local news coverage. Zimbardo himself put pressure on the guards to be tougher with the prisoners, and the only reason the experiment ended after six days instead of two weeks was because graduate student Christina Maslach (who was also romantically involved with Zimbardo) visited the prison and expressed horror at the conditions. Zimbardo does explore in the book whether the experiment was ethical (it wasn’t) and expresses regret that he allowed it to go on as long as he did, indicating that he too got caught up in his “role” as prison superintendent. I just couldn’t help thinking that maybe we need an experiment to study dickish tendencies among the scientific community.
The last third of the book explores what we can learn from the experiment about situational forces and how these forces help explain modern incidents like the Abu Ghraib abuses. Zimbardo concludes that “this experiment has emerged as a powerful illustration of the potentially toxic impact of bad systems and bad situations in making good people behave in pathological ways that are alien to their nature.”
There’s plenty of food for thought in this book; I just wish it had been available in pamphlet form.