Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Evil That Students Can Do: The Stanford Prison Study

Four decades ago Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo created the now-famous prison experiment.

Zimbardo divided a group of college students into prisoners and prison guards and consigned them to a dungeon in the basement of the Stanford psychology department.

Wikipedia described the terms of the experiment:

The volunteers knew they were being used in a study but they did not know when the study would be taking place, so the initial shock of being randomly arrested one morning and taken to the mock prison put them in a mild state of shock. On arrival, the "prisoners" were stripped, searched, shaved and deloused, which caused a great deal of humiliation. They were then issued uniforms, ID numbers, and escorted to their cells by the volunteer prison guards. These changes isolated the prisoners making it harder for them to portray their individual characteristics. The guards themselves were not given any specific instruction or guidelines for the way they were to treat the prisoners. Instead, the psychologists allowed them to do whatever was needed to keep order in the prison. They were dressed very professionally in identical uniforms. They also wore a whistle around their neck and carried a night stick.

After a short period of time the situation turned chaotic and violent. Wikpedia explains why the experiment was aborted:

 The planned two-week study into the psychology of prison life ended after only six days due to emotional trauma being experienced by the participants. The students quickly began acting out their roles, with "guards" becoming sadistic and "prisoners" showing extreme passivity and depression.

From the study Zimbardo concluded that human beings are not intrinsically good or evil, but that everyone has the capacity to do both. In his view the experiment proved that situations can render people good or evil.

In his words:

Good people can be induced, seduced, and initiated into behaving in evil ways. They can also be led to act in irrational, stupid, self-destructive, antisocial, and mindless ways when they are immersed in 'total situations' that impact human nature in ways that challenge our sense of the stability and consistency of individual personality, of character, and of morality.

Surely, all individuals have the capacity to do good or to do ill. If such had not been the case there would be no morality. Yet, one needs to pause here and to ask a few questions.

The students who were participating in the experiment were play-acting. They knew they were play-acting. Why do we believe that behavior elicited in artificial circumstances tells us anything about how these same persons would or would not act in their real lives? 

I have no doubt but that some people are incapable of committing evil acts under any circumstance. And I also have no doubt but that some people are irredeemably evil.

The experiment does not address such questions. It seems to suggest that any human being, submitted to sufficient stress can be induced to act as though he were evil. Again, does this prove that people are intrinsically evil or that we can elicit uncharacteristic behaviors by forcing people into unreal situations?

Obviously, the experiment does not really replicate the conditions of a real prison. It casts adolescents in the roles of prison guards and prison inmates and invites them to conduct some improvisational theatre.

Beyond the fact that these students are pretending, they are also untrained in the art of theatrical improvisation.

In a real prison the guards have been trained. They have applied for their jobs and have received proper orientation. They have learned the rules and routines of the job. Their actions and the meaning of their actions are determined by a strictly defined social structure. They are not told to fend for themselves in a situation where there are, effectively, no rules.

Of course, the student volunteers were subjected to the kinds of humiliation that real prisoners receive. And yet, there was a significant difference: real prisoners know why they are in prison. They know that they are being punished for their misdeeds. What would count as an arbitrary and unjust humiliation for a college student would be meaningful for a convicted criminal.

Why did the students behave as they did? 

Since they were not real prison guards and did not have a script to follow, they improvised, basing their behavior on what they knew through the media, of prison conditions. They were playing roles and they wanted to play them well. Being untrained in the craft of acting, they had far more difficulty maintaining the distance between their appointed roles and themselves.

The “guards” became abusive, not so much because in the experiment had brought out something basic to them, but because they wanted to be good students, and wanted to be good at acting out their roles.

This raises an important psychological question. When an actor plays a role in a movie or on stage, he will feel an emotion that is appropriate to his character: perhaps anger or jealousy. In his performance he will express the appropriate emotion as he recites lines and performs actions.

But, if an actor plays Othello and suffers feelings of jealousy about Desdemona have we demonstrated anything more than his capacity to express the emotion of jealousy? If the same actor, in the course of the play, pretends to murder Desdemona and does so convincingly, ought we to assume that he has gotten in touch with his inner homicidal maniac? Ought the actor’s wife take out an order of protection?

When an actor is in character, he will feel emotion. Are those emotions his own? Do they say something about him, about what he is capable of doing in real life, or does it show us what he can adopt to play a role?

Up to a point, I agree with Zimbardo that we are all capable of good and evil. But his experiment does not really show what we are capable of. It shows what we are capable of pretending. 

The students based their behavior on their sense of what is expected of them and on their media-driven knowledge of prison conditions.

Generalizing about human behavior or the human soul from such artificial circumstances strikes me as unpersuasive.


n.n said...

A worthy effort to distinguish between cause and effect, which is often lacking in clinical studies.

I would to add that good and evil are not absolute terms of art, but are defined within a context. For example: Zimmerman murdered Martin, but it was an act of self-defense to prevent severe physical trauma or even death. A contrasting example: around one million human lives are aborted annually, without cause, and without due process. It should be clear that in the first example Zimmerman's act can be considered of "good" or neutral disposition. While in the second example, the women's act is clearly of an "evil" disposition, which is characterized as an act of premeditated murder.

It must be noted that in contemporary popular culture, the first act is considered "evil", while the second act is considered "good" or neutral. A significant number of our population either support or tolerate this gross corruption of perception, and for little more reason than material and welfare benefits, and personal convenience.

Bobbye said...

Without God, what is good or what is evil is simply a matter of opinion.

Dennis said...

If I remember correctly, this is from a Psychology course I took years ago,there was another study that was similar and it had to do with people being told to administer shocks, in increasing amplitude, so they thought, to others if they were incorrect in any aspect of the test. This test was also stopped early because a large number of participants were going way passed what the examiners had expected. The people who were administering the shocks were suffering all kinds of adverse reactions.
The fact is that we all have evil in us. Most of us, because of background, religion, et al, do not succumb to it. If as I believe, this is a test of our character, we need to understand the length that we will go given the right circumstances.
Those who are quick to blame the German people for Hitler would do well to read a book by Eric Metaxas titled, "Bonhoeffer." The number of Germans who died challenging Hitler, on several different fronts, was far larger than most Americans would know or care to know.
If one does not think it cannot happen here then one is not paying attention to, much of this from the Left, of defining people at of every stage of life as non human and setting the stage for their destruction. N.n makes a valuable and salient point and it should not be lost on anyone how easy we move ever increasingly towards a "death culture." If one can kill life at the beginning, by calling it a fetus, then it is a short step to killing people at the end of life because they take up valuable resources. Notice that much like AFA costs have a very large part in these decisions. One of Hitler's favorite programs, beside killing Jews and Poles......, was killing "defective" children. With our ever increasing move toward infanticide, et al al does anyone doubt our ability to succumb to evil.
If anyone is offended by my use of the terms "Jews" and "Poles" then it might be instructive to think about the use of "tea bagger," "conservative," "right-winger," et al that tends to be the modern day equivalent. This is what evil does. It defines others names that remove their humanity.
I would disagree that these studies are not representative of how we are as human beings because much of what passes as politics is based on the evil that men/women do.
The question for most of us is do we succumb to evil? Do we let the "mob," lead by activists, push us to evil and the destruction of our Constitutional protections? The Zimmerman case is an example at how easy it is for us to get caught up in the emotions of things instead to the facts of things. This is one of the reasons why I keep saying that emotion, et al, have to be tempered by logic. Emotions are the gateway to evil.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

You're thinking of the Milgram experiment that was performed at Yale:

Frank said...

As a young naval aviator in the late 1980s, I went through the Navy's Survival Evasion Resistance & Escape (SERE) school in CA. The Resistance & Escape segments took place in a mock POW camp complete with guards wearing "foreign" uniforms, speaking English with "foreign" accents, interrogation techniques we could expect to encounter such as the "hard sell" and "soft sell" and, of course, the now infamous waterboard and other similar methods of persuasion.

What was fascinating in retrospect was that the POW Camp environment became very real very quickly. Perhaps it was in part due to the full immersion nature of it and to having been weakened by a week of Survival and Evasion training in the wilderness of CA, but we forgot that these Navy personnel tasked with tormenting us were only play acting. We prisonners quickly organized ourselves and actively planned and put into motion sabotage and escape plans. After 2 days, we were elated to get "rescued" by a SEAL team, and to see our guards laying about the camp "dead".

Afterwards in a discussion with the guard who during the "hard sell" had picked me up by the front of my flightsuit, slammed me against a wall 8-10 times, held me off the ground with a maniacal look in his eyes all without breathing hard (I weighed ~185 lbs back then), he told me that they (the guards and the camp leadership, e.g. Commandant et al) underwent a monthly psych eval to ensure they did not take their work home. He also stated that it was all too easy to fall into the role and to take it too far, and that the controls in place to prevent that were rather extensive.

I flew for the Navy for over 20 years, and this still ranks as one of the greatest experiences.

Alogon said...

Bobbye said...
"Without God, what is good or what is evil is simply a matter of opinion."

Chicken or the egg argument. Without knowledge of "good" or "evil" man would have no need to invent gods to rationalize them. As to what god is, another matter of opinion. And since that opinion varies, whose morals are right, or in other words, whose god wins?

I am sure we are able to have a proper discussion about morality as humans while leaving any imaginary friends out of the equation.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Bobbye. Gid s not an "imaginary friend."