Student Interest

Where Power Can Take Us

The Stanford experiment was conducted by Philip G. Zimbardo and his colleagues in 1971 in a basement formed into a mock prison. This experiment sought to find the psychological effect of role-playing of authority and its inferior and how this affects the behavior of the participants who took the role of a prison guard or prisoner. 

All of the participants were examined prior to the experiment in order to determine if they had any psychological issues. None of the participants had a criminal history and no concerning medical conditions. A total of 24 undergraduate students were chosen who agreed to participate with a payment of $15 a day. The prisoners were randomly assigned their roles and were treated strictly accordingly. The prisoners were arrested at their homes abruptly, and taken to the police station with all the required procedures. Their clothes and all their personal belongings were taken and they were given a uniform and a number the only way they could refer to the prisoner. The guards all wore the same uniform, had a whistle and sunglasses to prevent eye contact. There were three guards per 8-hour shift and could return home. Prisoners had to remain 24 hours in the prison. Guards were instructed that they could do what they believed necessary but prohibited the use of physical violence. Meanwhile, Zimbardo and his colleagues could observe everything happening through hidden cameras and microphones. 

The experiment was meant to last 14 days but had to be stopped after 6 days. The guards had become abusive, and the prisoners were becoming anxious and stressed. Interactions between both roles were hateful and the aggressive behavior from guards led prisoners to have symptoms of depression. Five prisoners experienced severe negative reactions, crying and anxiety obliging for them to be released. It became complete mayhem in less than a week. Immediately the experiment came under attack for unethical methodologies. 

Even though it came to that extent this experiment came to show many important discoveries about human behavior. It demonstrated how placing a person in a position of power can drastically change their behavior even when it contradicts their sense of righteousness. The guards behaved in a way that they would not in their everyday lives. Prisoners on the other hand in their vulnerable and indefensive state showed to become highly depressive and anxious. 

This experiment was later widely referred to in examining the behavior portrayed by US Military personnel during the Iraq War who committed outrageous acts against prisoners in the Abu Ghraib Prison since 2003. The prison guards raped, sexually abused, physically abused, tortured, and murdered Iraqi prisoners, innocent civilians. Later on, when pictures were released those who had exercised such horrible actions claimed to be justifiable due to the situation of war. Zimbardo himself attended the trials as an expert witness and noted that he was baffled by how connected were the effects portrayed in his experiment of the participants to the Abu Gharib scandal. 

Zimbardo saw that no matter the person any normal human being could become susceptible to committing oppressive acts if they were given the power and circumstances to do it and could become extremely vulnerable and depressive if placed in the prisoners’ position. It is very important to make all military, police, and government personnel aware of this study. Many power abuse acts could be avoided if they were more conscious of the consequences that assuming power positions have on the minds of any normal individual.

Categories: Student Interest

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