Sunday, November 21, 2010

Week 5 : Let's impress people with the Stanford prison experiment

          Your friends may have heard about the famous Stanley Milgram experiment, in which, participants were ordered to give fake electric shocks to an actor  (without knowing that they were fake), and so, at a higher voltage each time the actor didn't succeed to answer a memory question; ending with a lethal electric shock.

The results of this experiment were a huge surprise, indeed 65% of the participants  follow the order until the end and did not rebel.

But have your friends heard about the Stanford prison experiment ? Which is just as astonishing !

  • The experiment 

This experiment occurred in 1971 and directed by Psychology professor Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University.

The goal was to study the psychological effects of the prison on people who embody the role of guards and prisoners.
Professor Philip Zimbardo

Professor Philip Zimbardo and his team selected 24 male, they judge psychologically stable and healthy, among 74 people who respond to the offer to participate for a two-weeks prison simulation paid 15$ (It correspond to almost 75$ nowadays).

The roles between guards and prisoners were given randomly and then everything has been establish so that they embody their role.

Prisoners were realistically arrested at home, the police took their fingerprint and they had to wear uncomfortable clothes, no underwear and also a chain on their ankle.

As regards for the guards, the researchers gave them batons and military clothes, and then they tell the guards that they were in charge of the prison and that they could manage it the way they want. But of course they have been forbid to use violence.

  • The results

The experiment should last two weeks but it has been stop after only 6 days, indeed the experiment rapidly turned out to be a dangerous mess. From day 2 the prisoners start to rebel but the guards succeed to eradicate the riot and start to work unpaid extra hours. No more rebellion occurred but the treatment of the prisoners gets worse and worse

The guards begin to make the prisoners accomplish humiliating task such as cleaning toilets with the hands.

They used psychological tactics such as a the establishment of a "privilege cell" in oder to make the prisoners believe that they were informers among them. They also strip them naked, sexually taunt them and do others degrading activities.
Finally one-third of the guards revealed sadistic behavior.

This situation triggered many severe emotional break down among the prisoners, and the professor Philip Zimbardo himself acted improperly by refusing to release some seriously disturbed prisoners for a while. The experiment would have probably last longer if Christina Maslach didn't beg Zimbardo to stop it immediately after she interviewed some prisoners.

  • Personal commentaries 

This experiment is to us really scary, it's looks like a descent into hell. Obviously the first thing we had in mind was "How would we have react ?" but the fact is that we cannot know because it's seems that the personality is a minor factor in such situation.
We are used to think that we are simply good people but no one is immune to horrifying behavior. Which is quite disturbing and difficult to accept, don't you think ? Aren't we not the master of our behavior in a crisis ?

The second though we had in mind was "Are we more likely to act the good way now that we know about those experiments?". Give us your answers.

We regret that some of the participants suffer from severe emotional disturbance, and so, only for an experiment. Moreover there is many critics to do against the researchers, on the paper, the experiment was fine but they made some mistakes.
For example they should never accept the guards to do extra hours, because the camera were turn off so they were not able to control them. And as you can guess the worst thing happened at night.

But, in the other hand, it is also very interesting because it ask many questions and gives some part of the answer. We would say that this experiment is even more fascinating that the Milgram experiment because, both of them talk about blind obedience and diffusion of personal responsibility, but the Stanford prison experiment talks also about the importance of costumes to feel out of oneself, sadistic tendencies, passive tolerance and conformity to group.
Finally the thing that concerns us the most is, why the prisoners embodied their role of the victim so much. Why they felt like they deserved it ?

Our advises would be to watch the German movie "Das experiment" by Oliver Hirschbiegel. This is a stunning movie, inspired by the Stanford prison experiment, in which you can feel the rising of abuse of power from the inside. The beginning is very close to the real experiment but of course the end is much more dramatic. It's a movie after all.
Besides, another movie entitled "The Stanford Prison Experiment" is in production and will probably be released in 2011.

The optimistic conclusion would be to notice that if no one is intrinsically good, it also mean that no one is intrinsically bad.

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  1. I knew about the Milgram experiment, but not about the Stanford prison's one. I think that the behavior of the different protagonists in this experience is not surprising, and that knowledge that such behaviors can take place does not at all prevent the repetition of these behaviors. If we think about history and the endless repetition of genocides through out nations and times, we can easily conclude that humanity does not learn from its mistakes. That's not a very optimistic comment, but there is hope in the fact that there exists people who work to bring the horror to an end. I'm going to digress a bit here because this prison experiment reminds me of the panopticon. The panopticon is a an architectural design put together by a legal theorist, Jeremy Bentham,in the middle of the 19th century. He wanted to create a new prison in which there would be no guardians anymore to interact with the prisoners--the prisons would have no contact with each other and the few guards would observe them constantly from a tower. The design of the prison was to allow this new logistics of incarceration. So the prisoners would know that they were watched by an omnipresent power, and that situation was to induce in them a sort of self-surveillance. This theoretical concept was developed by Foucault, a contemporary philosoper, who actually argued in some of his books that society itself is a panopticon. According to him, power is everywhere, it comes from everywhere. Prison is not the only place where we encouter power struggles; it is a reality in all our institutions, in our relationship with others which is based on constant exchanges of power--these exchanges can, however, be crystalized and a few can keep power away from the masses...Again, this is quite a redundant state of things as humanity has experienced this crystallization of power through out history and still is experiencing it, unfortunately.

  2. It is very interesting topic wHich shows that we are conditioned.This article shows this is called sheep effect. Personally, i don't know how i will react and i think nobody knows it.
    They two experiments observed that many people are sadistic behavior.
    In these diferent situations people accepts to hurt other person. In first situation, we order him and second situation they can choose.
    So, can we conclude that a majority of people are violent?

  3. Thank you for your comment. You are right to ask this question. Maybe we cannot conclude something universal about it. But have you thought about your behaviour in such conditions so far ?
    To us one of the point of sharing what happened during this experiment in our blog is not to affirm humans are bad people. No. The point of this post is also to make people realize that we should all pay attention to our behaviour in any situation. We have to think about each of our acts. These people that we talked about were not born monsters. They were just like you and me, and they haven't realized the seriousness of their acts because they didn't thought of it. They just thought of what they had to do.
    Here what is pointed out is that we are all close to making terrible mistakes if we don't think about what we do.
    But what we really managed to do was to post an interesting information so that readers like you can talk about it during parties with friends and "impress" them. Here you can also make them more aware of the fact that we don't control everything even if we think we do. (Maybe they will also freak out...)

    So don't hesitate to share!