Forty years ago, from August 17 until it was closed down six days later, Philip G. Zimbardo, then a psychology professor at Stanford University, ran an experiment on authority and powerlessness in the basement of one of the university’s buildings, Jordan Hall.
Forty years later, as part of his new “Heroic Imagination Project,” Dr. Zimbardo’s new observations and views are available on Facebook.
And in April, 2011, Science Magazine carried an article, “Using the Psychology of Evil to Do Good.” The summary online notes that the goal of Zimbardo’s Heroic Imagination Project is “to teach ordinary people—from high school students to office workers—to recognize the influences that can make people stand idly by when they see a person in need and embolden them to commit what Zimbardo calls acts of everyday heroism. The organization has plans for teaching, research, and public outreach that are just getting off the ground.”
Zimbardo’s reflections on his well-known Stanford Prison Experiment have been evolving. In 2008, he published a groundbreaking book, THE LUCIFER EFFECT: Understanding How Good People Go Bad. Buffalo human rights groups should look into bringing the Heroic Imagination Project here. Call me. I would like to work on it with you. Here’s why:
According to the Stanford Alumni Magazine, the Stanford Prison Experiment was not only “notable” but “notorious.” As everyone who has taken Psych 101 knows, although the twenty-four students who participated had been recruited through an advertisement, given information about the study in advance, and were randomly assigned to be either prisoners or guards, in short order, they became part and parcel of the roles they were assigned. The students had been screened from a larger pool, and were checked to make sure they didn’t have criminal backgrounds, preexisting psychological issues, or medical issues that should disqualify them.
In less than six days,the guards became sadistic, and instead of just keeping order, which was their supposed task, they were stripping the prisoners, mocking them, depriving them of sleep, and marching them, lined up shackled and hooded, to the bathroom. Some of the prisoners staged a revolt, and others became hysterical or despairing, The first emotional breakdown occurred on the second day. Another followed.
Zimbardo himself has reflected on the experiment in the Stanford Alumni Magazine. Especially telling are the last three sentences (italics mine):
“Throughout the experiment, there was this conspiracy of denial-everyone involved was in effect denying that this was an experiment and agreeing that this is a prison run by psychologists.There was zero time for reflection. We had to feed the prisoners three meals a day, deal with the prisoner breakdowns, deal with their parents, run a parole board. By the third day I was sleeping in my office. I had become the superintendent of the Stanford county jail. That was who I was: I’m not the researcher at all. Even my posture changes-when I walk through the prison yard, I’m walking with my hands behind my back, which I never in my life do, the way generals walk when they’re inspecting troops.”
The researcher had become part of his own experiment. What was needed was an outsider to come in with fresh eyes and point that out—along with the fact that what was happening to the recruits was inhumane. The study had been approved by Stanford’s Human Subjects Research Committee, and Zimbardo says that “neither they nor we could have imagined” that the guards would treat the prisoners so inhumanely.
That person, Christina Maslach, was a graduate student who at the time was dating Zimbardo and later married him. She saw the humiliation, inhumane attitudes, and outright abuse that in less than six days the others had become inured to or were not in a position to stop. When he became aware of the gravity of the situation, Zimbardo halted the experiment. Maslach’s area of interest has been “how people who are responsible for the care and treatment of others can come to view those they care for in object-like ways, leading them, in some cases, to behave in ways that are really insensitive, uncaring, brutal and dehumanizing.”
At a meeting of the American Psychological Association this year, Zimbardo said that the experiment followed a one-weekend version conducted as a class project by some of his students in their dormitories. Presenting it to the class, he said, “’one kid turned to another and said, you can’t be my friend anymore because you did such terrible things when you were a guard….’ It was very clear that there was something powerful there and I felt we should follow it up in a more systematic way.” But a weekend in the dormitory didn’t begin to foresee six days in Jordan Hall.
Even though the experiment in the basement of Jordan Hall had been approved by the appropriate Stanford committee process, it had an intrinsic flaw. Although there were other visitors to the experiment who didn’t speak up, Zimbardo didn’t entertain the idea of stopping it until an outsider pointed out the obvious.
Brick and mortar prisons like Abu Ghraib have been compared to the Stanford Prison Experiment results. But in everyday life, roles assigned to citizens in training games or without cause also become real in short order. Those who run programs like these should say “No” to continuing them, and a citizens’ committee should serve as a watchdog to make sure they don’t recur. Why? Take a leaf out of an expert’s book:
Even Zimbardo has reflected that the Stanford experiment was unethical “because people suffered and others were allowed to inflict pain and humiliation on their fellows over an extended period of time.”
“And yes, although we ended the study a week earlier than planned, we did not end it soon enough.”
Contact Linda at [email protected]
Check out Linda’s Buffalo Books column, too!
Please note: Articles by the Buffalo Alternative Medicine Examiner are not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. For further information or advice, consult your health practitioner.