Sunday, February 25, 2007

In 1971, a study was conducted by Philip Zimbardo in order to learn more about prison life. The study took 24 ordinary male college students and put them in a prison simulation where half were prison guards and the other half were prisoners. The results of the study were incredible; because of the study we have learned a great deal about people and how social situations affect our behavior. The study was suppose to last 2 weeks, but because of humanitarian reasons, it only lasted 6 days.
The prisoners were picked up by real police men in their homes and arrested on the streets. Neighbors could see as they were frisked, cuffed, and placed in the back of a police car. The police brought them down to the station, fingerprinted and interrogated them; blind folded them, and brought them to Stanford University where the mock prison was located. They were deloused, given smocks to wear which had their prison number on it, and placed in their cells. The guards were given uniforms, a night stick, and reflective glasses. They could not beat the prisoners but could verbally and psychological abuse them and punish them in other ways.
The guards faced some difficulty at first because some of the prisoners were uncooperative. They swiftly learned how to quiet the prisoners with different punishments. Some of the punishments administered by the guards were push ups and singling out the prisoner, where as some punishments were more sadistic in nature. Taking away the privilege of a blanket at night, the inability to empty their waste buckets at night, forcing them to scrub toilets with their bare hands, and being thrown into the ‘hole’ (a broom closet with nothing in it and no light) to name a few. Some of the prisoners complied where as some of them attempted to rebel, which resulted sometimes in punishment of themselves or punishment of the other prisoners.
This had a huge affect on the prisoners; systematically 5 of the prisoners had to be released. One prisoner was released for uncontrollable screaming, crying, and rage, while another was released after a psychosomatic rash covered his body. Each prisoner was affected psychologically, each procuring actions that were often exhibited in real prisoners. According to prisoner #416 upon evaluation after the experiment ended, “I began to feel that I was losing my identity”, and many others also explained the feelings of helplessness and loss of control they felt.
When the study was terminated, intense evaluations followed the study to better understand what each participant went through, and to find whether or not there was any psychological damage done to the boys. Fortunately there were no long-term affects.
So what did we learn from this study? I think the most important thing that was discovered was that people’s actions do not define their characteristics. Every one of the students was given a psychological evaluation prior to study, and they were chosen because they were psychologically healthy, normal boys. Why then were the guards so sadistic, and why did the prisoners begin to exhibit behaviors of real prisoners?
The answer is deeply rooted in social influence and situational factors. Social behavior depends heavily on social roles and social norms. Social roles are the expected behavioral patterns exhibited by someone in a given group or setting. Social Norms refer to the attitudes and behaviors that are considered appropriate and acceptable for a person depending on their group or setting. So imagine that you are one of the boys who were to be a guard in this study. From your prior knowledge of how prison guards act, you take you cues from this. Without even knowing it, you become hardnosed and abundantly powerful. Because you hold the power, all of a sudden your prior inhibitions and personal values are changed and so it becomes easier to manipulate and dominate others with less power. Now imagine that you are one of the prisoners in this experiment. You know that it is just an experiment, and yet you do not expect the overwhelming helplessness you feel after all the power is taken away from you. You learn to obey any rule no matter how unrealistic it is because if struggle to fight it, their grip of power tightens around you. It is easy now to see how the influence of power can change even the normal person.

9 comments:

soporia_pres said...

There are a couple of situations in my life in which the bystander effect took place, though none of which were nearly as extreme as the Kitty Genovese situation. Most of them occurred in school, and I myself was felt a diffusion of responsibility. There are many instances where bullying occurred in the school that were so general I can’t remember the details, but one instance really stuck out in my head.
There was a bully who was a couple of grades older than me whose name I cannot remember (though everyone knew his face). One day I was walking down the hallways of East (it was at the end of our lunch period), and I watched this bully perform a despicable act. He started name calling another student who was in a wheel chair. The kid in the wheel chair lowered his head and continued on his way, trying to ignore the verbal abuse. As if the harassment was not enough, the bully went up to him and tipped over the kids wheel chair while everyone was watching. He sauntered off with a smug look on his face while the kid in the wheel chair tried to pick himself up from the ground. He was obviously having trouble doing so, and even though he didn’t verbally request help I could tell by the way he was looking at the onlookers that he was hoping for a helping hand. He even looked right at me, and yet I did nothing. A small group of kids just stood and watched, myself included, as this poor kid tried feebly to pick himself up. I heard the bell rang and I hurried to y next class and as I walked by I could see him crying. I felt bad for the kid at the time; he shouldn’t have had to endure that kind of harassment. But I did not feel obligated to help him, and it seemed that nobody else in that hallway did either.
Looking back on it, I feel even worse than I did then. But I also know that if I were to ever witness something like that again I would definitely feel inclined to help whether there were other people around or not.

megan said...

wow i really liked reading this article! it was very interesting to read about.
i have a few ?'s though...
do u know if the college students intentially allowed this to happen to them? because i think that if they did then that could possibly change the outcome of the experiment.
or did they know nothing about it?
and in that case how could they just take people and throw them into prison.

Aaron Grimm said...

Intriguing... and once again I point to an old job at a mental hospital (which shares some characterics with a prison). A lot of people I worked with acted completely different outside of their work setting. There was something about the environment that broke the will of patients and staff who worked there.

I often imagined what it would be like to be locked up somewhere. To this day, it scares the heck out of me. I wonder if there is a way for the prison system to change this sociological output. Is there a way to change the environment that people would want to better their lives and remain non-violent?

I found this study interesting and though provoking. Thanks for the post.

soporia_pres said...

I am glad you enjoyed this article; the study was really important to psychology of our prisons and comes close to home on many levels (Abu Graib for instance). That is a good question too- All the kids involved knew that it was going to be somewhat like a prison, but no one had expected the results. I am sure if they had known that the possibility of such psychological problems could result, a couple of them might not have participated. No one knew how this study was going to turn out when they performed it. Mr. Zimbardo started this study not even expecting much of an influence. He wanted to show how power affects situation, and he made it clear to the students and everyone involved that it was not a prison but a representation of a prison like situation. But it just completely turned around, and the study was stopped early because of how crazy it got. Actually, one of the people (his future wife actually) who came in to interview the prisoners in the process of the study convinced him to stop it. She saw how the boys were being treated and she pulled him aside and told him how she thought it was inhumane and that it was unethical to continue the study. He was so involved in his role that he didn’t even notice how bad it was until an outside person reminded him of the real world.
But the most interesting thing that I found was that despite their efforts to convince the board changed prisons, they didn’t make any changes to the prisons. They actually made it worse –


“Sadly, in the decades since this experiment took place, prison conditions and correctional policies in the United States have become even more punitive and destructive. The worsening of conditions has been a result of the politicization of corrections, with politicians vying for who is toughest on crime…”
– Philip Zimbardo http://www.prisonexp.org/slide-42.htm

Elvish said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elvish said...

This was an interesting study. What kind of examples drawn from modern life would you say confirms these results?

soporia_pres said...

Abu Graib Abu Graib Abu Graib!

Just take a look at the Iraq war and some of the horrible things that have surfaced from it. You here all these stories, and you see pictures of our men with their thumbs up and smiles on their faces next to burnt and bloody bodies and weapons that kill hundreds of people. Surely our soldiers are not evil or sadistic, and yet a lot of these pictures and stories we hear depict them as such. I mean, these are college kids, and children to alot of proud mothers, but how can mothers be proud of that? This study shows us that even the way the media portrays these boys, they feel differently on the inside. They are not all bent on destruction and sadism, they are just caught up in the war and don't know any better.

Elvish said...

"Abu Graib Abu Graib Abu Graib!"

Abu Ghraib. ;)

I think your example is sound enough.

I also think other factors (media portrayal, misunderstandings about foreign cultures, etc.) contributed to the mistreatment received by the prisoners.

But I'm curious: Do you really think it was the role of the soldier that resulted in such atrocities?

soporia_pres said...

Well I highly doubt that the average soldier would perform sadistic act under normal circumstances, or say at home. I do think that a lot of it had to do with the situation they were put in. I don’t know what it would be like to be a soldier over seas, but I could make a couple of inferences:
When in a war situation like this a soldier would likely prep his mind to be desensitized to a lot of things.
The pressures of the social norms of a soldier would be tremendous.
The feeling of unanimity may lead to behaviors that you normally wouldn’t even consider doing.
Are you familiar with Deindividuation? It basically assumes that when people are in a certain group situation, we will lose our sense of identity and behave in ways contrary to our beliefs and values. This could explain certain despicable acts that normally would be seen as highly inappropriate, but then are considered acceptable. When we are individuated, we feel like we are not seen because there are so many others that also act that way, that it is alright for us to act that way too.
Another aspect of it could be diffusion of responsibility; when we lose our sense of responsibility to act a certain way because we think someone else should be equally or more responsible. When people are in a group and they see something wrong occurring, they won’t necessarily feel obligated to correct it (see my blog post on the Kitty Genovese incident for more information).
So in conclusion I don’t think that it is the role of a soldier, rather that social confusion being overseas and not knowing what to do that led to the actions of those soldiers. Good question ;)