The motto of the Stanford Prison Experience designed by psychologist Philippe Zimbardo could be this: Do you consider yourself a good person? It’s a simple question, but answering it takes a little thought. If you think of yourself as a human being like many other people, you probably also think that you are not characterized by breaking the rules twenty hours a day.
With our virtues and faults, most of us seem to maintain a certain ethical balance in coming into contact with the rest of humanity. Partly thanks to this respect for the rules of coexistence, we have succeeded in creating relatively stable environments in which we can all live relatively well.
Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist who challenged human kindness
Perhaps because our civilization offers beautiful stability, it is also easy to read the ethical behavior of others as if it were something very predictable: when we refer to the morals of people, it is difficult. not to be very categorical. We believe in the existence of good and bad people, And those who are neither very good nor very bad (here probably among the image we have of ourselves) define themselves by automatically tending to moderation, to the point where neither of them hurts themselves seriously nor does it seriously harm the rest. Labeling yourself and others is comfortable, easy to understand, and also sets us apart from others.
Today, however, we know that context plays an important role when it comes to orienting our behavior morally towards others: to verify this, it suffices to break the shell of “normality” in which we have built our uses and our customs. One of the clearest examples of this principle can be found in this famous research, conducted by Philip Zimbardo in 1971 in the basement of his faculty. What happened there is known as the Stanford Prison Experiment, a controversial fame study is based in part on the disastrous results it had for all involved.
Philip Zimbardo designed an experiment to see how people who had not had a relationship with the prison environment adapted to a vulnerable situation in front of the others. To do this, 24 young, healthy middle-class men were recruited as participants in exchange for a paycheck.
The experiment would take place in one of Stanford University’s basements, which had been conditioned to resemble a prison. The volunteers were assigned to two groups by lot: the guards, who wield power, and the prisoners, who should remain locked in the basement for the duration of the experimentation period, i.e. say for several days. Since he wanted to simulate a prison as realistically as possible, the inmates went through some sort of process of detention, identification and imprisonment, and all of the volunteers’ costumes had elements of anonymity: uniforms and dark glasses in the case of the guards, and inmate dresses with embroidered numbers for the rest of the participants.
In this way, an element of depersonalization in the experience: the volunteers were not specific people with a unique identity, but formally became simple jailers or prisoners.
From a rational point of view, of course, all these aesthetic measures didn’t matter. It remained strictly true that there were no significant differences in size and constitution between guards and detainees, and all were equally subject to the legal framework. Outraged, the guards were forbidden to harm to prisoners and their function was to control their behavior, to make them uncomfortable, deprived of their privacy and subjected to the erratic behavior of their guards. In short, everything was based on the subjective, difficult to describe in words but which also affects our behavior and our decision-making.
Would these changes be enough to significantly alter the moral behavior of the participants?
First day in prison: apparent calm
At the end of the first day, there was no indication that anything remarkable was going to happen. The inmates and guards felt estranged from the role they were meant to play, in a way. they rejected the roles that had been assigned to them. However, the complications quickly started. By the second day the guards had already started to see how the line was blurring he separated his own identity and his role to which they had to comply.
The prisoners, in their condition of disadvantaged people, took a little longer to accept their role, and on the second day a rebellion broke out: placing their beds against the door to prevent the guards from entering to remove their mattresses. They, as repressive forces, used the gas from the fire extinguishers to put an end to this small revolution. From this moment, all the volunteers of the experience they ceased to be mere students to become something else.
Day two: the guards turn violent
What happened on the second day triggered all kinds of sadistic behavior on the part of the guards. The outbreak of the rebellion assume the first symptom that the relationship between guards and inmates had become completely asymmetrical: The guards knew each other with the power to dominate the rest and acted accordingly, and the inmates corresponded to their captors by implicitly acknowledging their inferior position as would a prisoner known to be locked within walls. A dynamic of domination and submission was therefore generated solely on the basis of the fiction of “Stanford Prison”.
Objectively, in the experiment, there was only one room, a certain number of volunteers and a team of observers and none of the people involved was at a more disadvantage than the others before real justice and in front of the trained and equipped police. . However, the imaginary prison was gradually making its way into the world of reality.
Harassment becomes the bread and butter of everyday life
At one point, the bullying suffered by the inmates became very real, as did a real sense of superiority of the false guards and the role of jailer adopted by Philip Zimbardo, who had to break away from the disguise of investigator and do the office he had assigned. to his bedroom, to be close to the source of the problems he had to face. Some inmates were refused food, were forced to remain naked or ridiculed, and were not allowed to sleep well. In the same way, thrusts, trips and jerks were frequent.
Stanford Prison Fiction gain so much power that for many days neither the volunteers nor the researchers could recognize that the experiment had to be stopped. They all assumed that what was happening was, in some way, natural. On the sixth day, the situation was so out of control that a remarkably shocked search team had to bring it to an abrupt end.
Consequences of role play
The psychological imprint that this experience left is very important. It was a traumatic experience for many of the volunteers, and many of them still find it difficult today to explain their behavior during those days: it is difficult to make compatible the image of the guard or the inmate who was during the experience. Stanford Prison and a positive self-image.
For Philip Zimbardo, it was also an emotional challenge. the spectator effect it took outside observers for many days to come to terms with what was going on around them and somehow consented to it. The transformation into torturers and criminals by a group of “normal” young people had taken place if Of course, no one had noticed the moral aspect of the situation, even though the problems arose almost suddenly.
The news about this case also came as a shock to American society. First because this kind of simulation directly alluded to his penal system architecture, One of the foundations of life in society in this country. But most important is what this experience tells us about human nature. As long as this lasted, Stanford Prison was a place any representative of the Western middle class could enter and bribe. Superficial changes in relationships and some doses of depersonalization and anonymity have been able to reverse the pattern of coexistence that permeates all areas of our life as civilized beings.
From the rubble of what was previously etiquette and custom arose not human beings capable of creating an equally valid and healthy framework of relationships, but people who interpreted strange and ambiguous norms in a sadistic way. .
The reasonable automaton seen by Philip Zimbardo
It is comforting to think that lies, cruelty and theft only exist in “bad people”, the people we label this way to create a moral distinction between them and the rest of humanity. However, this belief has its weaknesses. No one is unknown to the stories of decent people who end up corrupting soon after reaching a position of power. There are also many characterizations of “anti-heroes” in series, books and films, people with ambiguous morals who precisely because of their complexity are realistic and, why not say, more interesting and close to us. : compare Walter White to Gandalf the White.
In addition, when faced with examples of professional misconduct or corruption, it is common to hear opinions such as “you would have done the same for you”. The latter is an unfounded claim, but it reflects an interesting aspect of moral standards: its application depends on the context. The harm is not attributable exclusively to a number of small-nature people, but is largely due to the context we perceive. Each person has the potential to be an angel or a demon.
“The dream of reason produces monsters”
The painter Francisco de Goya said that the dream of reason produces monsters. However, during the Stanford experiment, monsters appeared by applying reasonable measures: conducting an experiment using a series of volunteers.
In addition, the volunteers adhered to the instructions so well that many of them still regret their participation in the study today. The big flaw in Philip Zimbardo’s investigation was not due to technical errors, as all of the depersonalization and prison staging measures proved to be effective and all seemed to follow the rules at first. His decision was that it started with the overestimation of human reason to decide independently what is right and what is wrong in any context
From this simple exploratory test, Zimbardo unwittingly showed that our relationship to morality includes certain uncertainty quotas, And it’s not something that we are always able to handle well. It is our most subjective and emotional side that falls into the traps of depersonalization and sadism, but it is also the only way to detect these traps and to connect emotionally with our neighbor. As social and empathetic beings, we must go beyond reason to decide which rules are applicable in each situation and how they are to be interpreted.
The experience of Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison teaches us that this is when we give up questioning mandates when we become dictators or voluntary slaves.
- Zimbardo, PG (2011). The Lucifer effect: the cause of evil. Barcelona: Espasa.