Questioning Humanity: The Stanford Prison Experiment

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” - Friedrich Nietzsche

‘Humanity’ as a word essentially includes, but is not limited to, all the better things in the world: Peace, Happiness, Co-operational Existence for the betterment of the community, Altruism and so on. But what if this definition was farcical at the very least, or worse, misleading and based on chosen references rather the entire spectra of Truth? What if humans are the monsters they are themselves scared of? History does cite its own examples and notions on this issue. Tyrants, dictators and people in positions of power have always exploited those not in power since the beginning of time. But what if this was the true nature of Man? To seek answers to this question and more, Dr Philip Zimbardo along with his associates conducted the now infamous Stanford Prison Experiment in August 1971 in the basements of Stanford University’s Psychology Department. The aim of the experiment, as decided by Dr Zimbardo, was to conduct a social psychology experiment. Zimbardo’s primary motive for conducting the experiment was to focus on the power of roles, rules, symbols, group identity and situational validation of behaviour that generally would repulse ordinary individuals.

Dr Zimbardo, in his own words at the Toronto Symposium in 1996, “had been conducting research for some years on deindividuation, vandalism and dehumanization that illustrated the ease with which ordinary people could be led to engage in antisocial acts by putting them in situations where they felt anonymous, or they could perceive of others in ways that made them less than human, as enemies or objects”. In the Stanford Prison Experiment, he created a struggle of sorts between two groups and decided to evaluate the power dynamics behind it. He created a prison-like setup, where a certain set of individuals would be representing the ‘guards’ (the dominant strata) who would be controlling the ‘prisoners’ (the lower strata). The unsuspecting, and must we also add, willing volunteers in the experiment were divided into the groups only as a matter of chance.

Dr Zimbardo set up the experiments to establish the breakdown of one’s own personality to take someone else’s. The guards were asked to react harshly in order to establish their power over the prisoners. Dave Eshelman, the most infamous guard during the experiment recalled that all actions were committed in order to fulfil the purpose behind the experiment, even though the experiment showed that some guards had very sadistic tendencies. The prisoners were taken from their own homes, and the Palo Alto Police cooperated with Zimbardo for a more genuine atmosphere. The prisoners were stripped and searched, their names were taken away from them and they were assigned numbers. The first day of the experiment went as it was expected to, without any issues. There were 9+3 guards and they were arranged to take charge in shifts. The conditions of the small container-like prison cells were largely in contrast with the living conditions of the guards.

On the second day, however, things started turning more macabre. The prisoners locked their doors and refused to come out. The guards used fire extinguishers to subdue the revolt without any permission from Zimbardo, who acted as the “superintendent of the prison”. The guards decided that there would be privilege rooms, which had way better food and beds, where the prisoners who did not support the rebellion would be kept. The interesting thing was even the people who had not supported the rebellion did not choose to be in these rooms. The guards continued to establish their dominance by removing the mattresses and forcing the prisoners to sleep on the ground, not even allowing them to clean their chamber pots. After 36 hours, a certain prisoner #8612 claimed to have lost his mind and was forced to be released.

But the atrocities of the guards continued. They stripped the prisoners and asked them to repeat the numbers assigned to them in order to enforce their new identity on them. While Zimbardo was concerned that the released prisoner would come back and was busy relocating the experiment, the guards continued their naked displays of power. A certain prisoner #416 locked himself in his room and refused to eat his sausages. He was forced into solitary confinement. There were several times when the prisoners asked for parole, only to be refused under the condition of no payment for their services. Zimbardo claimed that the prisoners stayed back even if no money was involved because they had internalised the roles of the oppressed prisoners in themselves. It was only after Zimbardo’s fiancé, Maslach, arrived on the sixth day of the experiment and questioned the morality of the situation that finally the experiment concluded. Zimbardo noted that out of the 50 people who participated in the experimented, nobody questioned its morality apart from Maslach.

There have been several thought experiments and social and anthropogenic situations reenacted along the lines of the Stanford Prison Experiment. A notable one is the Milgram Experiment, where a person in one room was given the option of using an electronic switch which would send a current to another person in another room. The result of these experiments gives us a simple forlorn conclusion: Humans are, in most circumstances, sadistic creatures, and those with power will most likely prey on those without it. Even though the Stanford Experiment is challenged for having fraudulent methodology, the question remains that if humans are provided with an unrestricted and unbounded amount of power, will they behave like the guards did or will their ways be dependent on other factors such as the surrounding environment, i.e. the factors which were left unaccounted for in Zimbardo’s version? Or is there more to it than what meets the eye?

There are several questions which arise on the origins of morality and cognitive behaviour if we analyse the results of the Stanford Prison Experiment. Maybe we will find more about it when we recreate the circumstances. Or maybe we could all just accept the tyrant within us, the mass murderer within us and also embrace the empathy within ourselves and let them battle it out for the soul of mankind. In Dark Knight , the movie, The Joker presents a similar experiment where he provides people with the option of destroying one of two boats, where one is filled with civilians and the other is filled with criminals and the remote for the detonation of the bomb in one boat is placed in the other boat. Even though the film chooses not to explore the darker aspects of the human mind and depicts humanity as still residing within us, it is after all the matter of a film. The question is: what if this happens with all of us right now? What would you choose? The ball is in your court.

Udayon Sen

Udayon Sen is an aspiring polymath who adores Michael Stevens but certainly has better hair than him (hopefully). He studies Computer Engineering, along with every other course he can study, just to accumulate enough for himself to spread the word.

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