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Friday, July 24, 2015

Good People Succumb To Evil Environments: Remembering the Infamous Stanford Prison Experiment

If you've never seen this video on the Stanford Prison Experiment, then you've missed a vital lesson on human nature, environment, and the ease with which bad situations can triumph over good people.

WARNING: Video depicts some nudity, as well as intense and emotionally charged scenes and disturbing behavior.

At least, I've always found it to be emotionally charged and disturbing. [video after the break]

It took a while for me to recall, but eventually this came to my mind with the current drama about police and abuses of power. I think of the respectable policemen I've ever met, about the respect for them my family's culture and atmosphere has instilled in me, and want to dismiss much of the claims of brutality as the result of a mentality of victim-hood. These are respectable men, these are sane and virtuous men who seek to protect and serve.

But then I ask myself, what of environment? What of Chicago, and Detroit and Oakland? When Danger is part and parcel with environment, and it's cops against criminals where criminals abound, what's to keep cops connected with reality? These 'guards' knew perfectly well that the only crime of the 'prisoners' was having a coin come up 'heads' instead of 'tails,' and yet brutality and bullying, verbal abuse, psychological torture, humiliation and and dehumanization were brutally employed. Innocence was not a factor. What do you do when the men we charge with keeping us all safe in dangerous places succumb to its twistedness themselves?

This isn't an in-depthed or super researched post. This is a train of thought, based off of a disturbing part of our history, and a incomplete train of thought at that. I just want to pose the question. If you think that the idea is silly (or chillingly possible,) then feel free to do whatever research you like. And, of course. watch the video.

Led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University, the experiment was dismal. This was a very poorly conducted study, and had little to no safeguards protecting the participants. It's purpose was to examine the psychological effect of becoming a prisoner or a prison guard, and was set to run for 9 days. Despite all the participants being aware that they were randomly chosen, that no one was really a criminal and no one was really a guard, the situation became incredibly inhumane very, very quickly, and had to be shut down 6 days in.

Several "Prisoners" had breakdowns and were sent home, and afterwards, many of the "guards" were horrified at their own behavior, wondering what could ever drive them to treat innocents, let alone real prisoners, the way they did. The trauma of the "prisoner" participants was sadly, terribly real.
When Zimbardo designed the experiment, he made what he later admitted to be a mistake by assigning himself a duel role, both as director of the experiment and 'prison warden.' As warden, it was impossible for him to be an impartial observer, and soon he found himself caught up in the hysteria of his own 'gaurds.' It wasn't until another colleague visited Stanford, saw the study in progress, and told him that it was brutal for the boys involved, that they were suffering and he was responsible that Professor Zimbardo came to his senses. The only thing he could possibly think to attribute his blindness to the situation to was the psychological effect of the environment in the the prison he had created.

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