In 1971, in the basement of a building on campus, Dr. Phillip Zimbardo conducted what would eventually be called “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” The goal was to observe how uncorrupted humans interact in “the system.” He selected a group of twenty-one students (mostly white and middle class) and randomly assigned them the roles of guard or inmate. A mock prison with cells, guardrooms, bathrooms and cafeteria had been constructed and once “arrested” and “incarcerated” the seven students chosen to be prisoners could not leave. The guards then rotated in two 12-hour shifts of seven. To catalyze the social distance between the two groups, the guards were given batons (they could not hit, though the prisoners didn’t know this) and were required to wear dark sunglasses to prevent eye contact. The prisoners were given grey jumpsuits and numbers that completely replaced their names: “What are you looking at 3-3-2-9-4?!”
Within twenty-four hours both the guards and inmates behavior changed drastically. One inmate had to be released on the second day for having a breakdown. Guards, who had been classmates with the prisoners days before, became abusive and, (the whole experiment is captured on film) in many instances, sadistic. They pulled prisoners out of their cells when sleeping, made them strip off their clothes and put them in “solitary”—a modified broom closet at the end of the hall. This is not to say that the prisoners were angels. They organized a jailbreak and riot, which the guards put down. And through all of this, over five days, Dr Zimbardo watched as the “Warden.” Not until he brought in his girlfriend, a graduate psychology student at Berkeley, did he get a dose of reality. She, being the first outsider to see the mayhem, took one look and demanded that he put it to a halt, which he did, two weeks before its scheduled end. Zimbardo would later write that perhaps the strangest part of the experiment was how he, as the supposed impartial supervisor, lost site of reality in these strange and violent conditions.
The underlying question is one of psychology’s oldest: is behavior learned or inherent? Nurture vs. Nature, and this experiment is quite a case for the former. All the participants were Stanford students from decent homes with little history of psychological disorders in their families. A week before the experiment they’d been free-loving college kids; a week after being shoved into this “system” together, they were violent guards or rebellious inmates. They were all male, so perhaps the experiment should be run again with half the guards being women. A little estrogen may have calmed the situation. Yet, if you look at the more recent atrocities at Abu Ghraib, some of the guards were female. (Dr Zimbardo was actually called as an expert witness in the Court Marshall of the US soldiers, recommending their acquittal and citing “the system” as the true culprit.)
Once we get past Nurture vs. Nature, let’s keep asking what happens when a group holds systematic power over another? Scientists have looked at ways to replicate the Stanford Experiment, but modern standards largely preclude it. Yet, it’s not hard to make the leap from the basement in Palo Alto, to iron-fisted and/or sadistic regimes.
So how do we, or even, can we define “systematic insanity,” whereby the whole system has lost its mind so, when within its walls, you never realize how crazy it actually is? (Analogy: think about our planet. We’re barreling through space at 67,000 MPH, but if you look out the window, things are pretty calm.) And why, when we hold all the strings, when given undivided power, do people inherently seem to pull them cruelly? The US Constitution constructed our government with three branches for a reason. Is it simply our desire to remain “in power”? Or is it out of our animal competition that we can’t let anyone else pull ahead of us in the Great Race and we’ll go to any measures to prevent it. Maybe the two ideas are really the same.
This is one of those situations that, of course, doesn’t have a neat answer. We know this. But constantly asking the question, observing, recognizing, picking it apart, getting upset with one piece of it, nodding at another in self-reflection, and just keeping it “out there” is important. We don’t want to; the face of it is so ugly and maybe on some level, just a little, tiny bit of it is recognized by dark Nature inside, and it scares us. Yet, The Stanford Prison Experiment is replicated every day in Congo, in Sudan, in Pakistan, in parts of China, and yes, even in the United States. We’ll never vanquish the demon—it’s too deep—but if we keep looking it right in the damn eye, maybe we’ll recognize it a little sooner when it rears its head.
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Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at