Over at Pure Pedantry, Jake informs us that a documentary about Dr. Phillip Zimbardo’s infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment has been uploaded onto YouTube in five parts. Jake’s post includes the five videos (about 50 minutes total) and some background on the experiment and Dr. Zimbardo, whom Jake was once a TA for back at Stanford.
In the experiment, students were randomly divided into “guards” and “prisoners” and forced to work or live in a makeshift prison for two weeks. The participants adopted their respective roles so easily, with such shocking and destructive outcomes, that the experiment was halted over one week early. Although an experiment of such questionable ethics would surely not gain approval from an institutional review board today, there are still quite a few lessons we can take home from it.
The Prison Experiment demonstrated, in a controlled and scientific manner, just how great an effect the environment has on our individual behavior, capable of trumping what we would otherwise consider our steadfast moral and behavioral guidelines. Individuality so easily melts away as the social environment begins to define the individual.
Although, as Zimbardo points out himself, this study is relevant to a variety of facets of everyday life, from schools to prisons to personal relationships–whenever there is a power difference between two people–this study is still most poignant, to me at least, in how it showed that lurking beneath us all is a dark side that can easily be released under the right conditions.
When a scandal like Abu Ghraib occurs, a natural reaction is to point fingers and blame the individual, assuring ourselves that this is just the work of a few bad seeds. The Prison Experiment clearly demonstrates, however, that it isn’t something unique to the abusive guard that makes him so. Rather, the blame lies on the environment: partially on the intrinsic power differences existing in a prison or similar situation and partially on the higher ups who have perpetuated and enabled such an environment to persist (the role that Zimbardo admits to being guilty of himself in his experiment).
By appeasing ourselves each time with a few scapegoats, rather learning from our mistakes–and the results of the Prison Experiment–we ignore the fundamental causes of such behavior, allowing this abuse to continue in a variety of situations. Occasionally, such abuse erupts into a scandal like Abu Ghraib, but it is quickly swept to the back of the mind, dooming us to repeat the same again.