The Stanford Prison Experiment

Over the years there have been many incidents that have motivated psychologists to question about how power is perceived. Abuse of power as a concept has not only interested psychologists, but everyone in general. In the broadest context, we all wonder what led Adolf Hitler to mercilessly kill tens of thousands of people in the most brutal way possible. In more simpler contexts, we believe that politicians in India behave a certain way because they are ‘power hungry’. Ergo, it is common belief that power corrupts. But the real question is, how much?

Many experiments have been conducted by learned psychologists to study the behaviour of humans in different situations. One such experiment was the Stanford Prison Experiment. In 1971, a Psychology professor Phillip Zimbardo wanted to study the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. His research group set up a simulated prison to study the behaviour of both the groups of people. The experiment was initially supposed to take place for two weeks but was abandoned in just six days. This is a very brief recount of the entire experiment.

Professor Zimabardo wanted to recreate the exact prison environment to study the psychological effects of the power struggle. Hence, it was very important for them to regulate the initiation of the experiment. An advertisement in the local paper called for volunteers to participate in a paid psychology research. These volunteers were tested for any existing psychological illnesses and 24 of them were selected and randomly assigned to be prisoners or guards. The prisoners were picked up in police cars from their homes and taken to the police station to be formally charged.

The prisoners were taken by surprise as the arrests were unexpected and very formal. The prison guards quickly established a strong hold over the activities of the prisoners. They were made to feel humiliated and emasculated as quickly as possible in the process of recreating a functional prison simulation that had the same effects like a real prison. The guards were given no specific training. Their actions were arbitrary and commanded respect from the prisoners in many different ways. Push-ups were a common form of physical punishment that the guards imposed on the prisoner, some guards even stood on their backs for the same.

While push-ups seem like trifling punishments, it was the start to a bigger confrontation between two kinds of participants. The prisoners started to rebel on the very second day of the experiment. The guards took the roles seriously and tried to assert their authority on the prisoners all the time. The guards began to exercise excessive punishments over the rebellious prisoners. The prisoners were striped naked, made to sleep on the floor and even starved to regain obedience. Some prisoners were even punished into solitary confinement.

No more than three days had passed before the first prisoner started showing the first signs of heightened emotional disturbance. As his temperament worsened, the prison authorities did not want to believe that his behaviour was real. Professor Philip Zimbardo himself was extremely immersed in the experiment that he refused to accept how much his test subjects were affected in just 6 days. Many other incidents took place before the experiment was officially called off.

In conclusion, it was reported that the prison-simulation caused the unpredictable behaviour of the participants. These results were compatible with that of the Milligram Experiment. This experiment measured the willingness of men to obey an authority figure who will instruct them to perform actions that would normally go against their conscience. In this case, they were administering electric shocks to “learners”. This experiment concluded that a very high percentage of men obeyed the instructions. Although these experiments had many criticisms and are not widely accepted in the field of psychology, they provide the basis to make some judgements.

Humans put in a position of power are highly likely to misuse it due to various reasons not completely comprehended yet. In both these experiments, the participants had the choice of not hurting the victim. The choice was never considered due to their perception of power and authority. The guards were seen making arbitrary decisions despite being warned in the beginning to refrain from physical abuse. Despite their knowledge of the experiment, their desire to exercise control was still strong. Their desire for power started to override their basic belief system.

This is observed in many real-life situations. The Milligram experiment was used to analyse the moral stance of many soldiers who killed the Jews on the orders of one man. Were they simply taking orders despite having different moral beliefs? It is possible that many of them would not have been accomplices to those heinous crimes if they were not deliberately put in those situations. Nevertheless, they all had choices they did not consider. The Stanford Prison Experiment proves that given an opportunity to exert superiority and power, humans may willingly do it. We have proved that time and again over the centuries. Colonialism, ethnic cleansing, dictatorships and nuclear wars are all different forms of the same theory – “power corrupts”.

Picture Courtesy- Science|How Stuff Works

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