The Menace Within

In 1971, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo began an experiment that became known as the Stanford Prison Experiment. Students were randomly assigned to be "guards" or "prisoners" in an imaginary prison scenario. It shocked the academic world and led to new standards for ethics in psychology studies.
Forty years later, the Stanford Prison Experiment remains among the most notable—and notorious—research projects ever carried out at the University. For six days, half the study's participants endured cruel and dehumanizing abuse at the hands of their peers. At various times, they were taunted, stripped naked, deprived of sleep and forced to use plastic buckets as toilets. Some of them rebelled violently; others became hysterical or withdrew into despair. As the situation descended into chaos, the researchers stood by and watched—until one of their colleagues finally spoke out.

The public's fascination with the SPE and its implications—the notion, as Zimbardo says, "that these ordinary college students could do such terrible things when caught in that situation" —brought Zimbardo international renown. It also provoked criticism from other researchers, who questioned the ethics of subjecting student volunteers to such extreme emotional trauma. The study had been approved by Stanford's Human Subjects Research Committee, and Zimbardo says that "neither they nor we could have imagined" that the guards would treat the prisoners so inhumanely.

Stanford Magazine interviewed some of the participants in the experiment, both faculty and students. They tell their side of the story in the latest issue. Link -via Metafilter

Newest 5
Newest 5 Comments

My saying this may be an example of real love in action. Though by saying these things I place myself in a position apart from the norm, and therefor my audience and possibly the administrators of this website, and though that carries a weight of fear with it, I am in the act of saying it anyway.

My mental process involves much of the 'old man'. Currently I can identify several threads of concern; ranging from fear of reprisal, fear of error, fear of rejection, fear of ridicule, and just a general fear of asserting myself amidst a group of 'others'. All of this serves in some measure to prevent my saying anything, despite the carefulness and solidity of my deliberations. I may have the choicest bits of wisdom to share, but the fear remains, and probably will for the remainder of my days. But this is not an excuse for complicity or inaction, my rational and conscientious mind knows that right action is consistently thwarted by fear and normalcy. Fear is normalcy; it drives the bulk of our behavior. Fear drives us further into abstraction; seeking comfort for our egos in the unreality of pure thought. From there we can look down upon reality, as if it's laws and constants were merely circumstantial to our existence. We can turn a blind eye to the wisdom of the past, and hoist ourselves up on an ivory pillar, proclaiming our methods to far surpass our ancestors, without ever having an open-interest to their sentiments. We can ignore such realities because they make us feel uncomfortable and undervalued; but such realities will not ignore us.

Just as love is an orientation which refers to all objects and is incompatible with the restriction to one object, so is reason a human faculty which must embrace the whole of the world with which man is confronted.
Erich Fromm
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
When faced with a decision that pits one attachment against another we are forced to judge the weight of our attachments. When faced with a decision that pits an attachment against something we derive no self-worth from, the decision is easy, we choose our emotional attachments.

Parents have been studied as to their behavior toward children, and it is frequently found without fail that parents are only really mindful of their own children. Without even being caught off-guard in a blind experiment, but simply being questioned; parents report that they would not rescue other children from a burning schoolhouse, but would ensure their own children's safety. They would pass-up the opportunity to save children being burned alive in the front of a building, and run into the inferno to save their own children. The value of each child is ostensibly the same, the parents are rescuing their own emotional attachments.

If a person loves only one other person and is indifferent to all others, his love is not love but a symbiotic attachment, or an enlarged egotism.
Erich Fromm
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
Rising above this abysmal state requires one relinquish all egotistical attachment. One must liberate themselves of the incessant need to find psychological comfort. For the ego will make life very difficult when trying to attain to true love. Begin by imagining going without your family, your friends, your spouse, your children, you should experience a loss as if you had really given these things up, or you aren't in a proper meditation. You may find your mind seeking solace in a pet cat or dog, or even something as lowly as a fish ("The world hates me, but you still love me, don't you sparky?") Give up sparky, sparky doesn't need to love you, you need to accept reality and yourself as they are without any attachment to relationships, possessions or status. Imagine you've come home and your house and all your belongings have been burned down and you are not insured. You are now destitute, with no friends, family, or even animal companionship. You are merely a person roaming through space and time, you must give up your national identity. You are not American, you aren't even Caucasian. At most you can say you 'belong' to the human race, but this must be overcome at a later time. Give it all up, and get used to not having.

"The real opposition is that between the ego-bound man, whose existence is structured by the principle of having, and the free man, who has overcome his egocentricity."
— Erich Fromm
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
This happens because people fear for themselves and through various "injunctions" they are able to 'pass-the-buck' of personal responsibility and act according to how they feel they are expected to act. As parents we teach our kids not to give into peer pressure, as adults our lives are entirely defined and our self-worth determined by our peer groups. We believe our motivations are much more righteous, but we haven't done anything to secure a moral sense over and above the masses of our peers. Quite naturally, the pull of peer opinion helps conform our moral intuitions to that of our peer group. We may assume an infallibility in this role as moral judge, or assume that our judgments are inconsequential, either means of coping with uncertainty in our moral decisions serves us not to unveil delusion and correct ourselves, but merely to do away with ill feelings. Our psyches are constantly engaged in moving toward pleasure and away from fear, even within themselves, if one coping strategy is able to push the pain or suffering out of mind or into the periphery of conscious attention, we are temporarily satisfied, at least enough to convince us there is no problem. A powerful injunction for these types of experiments is "The experiment needs you to continue." Not surprisingly, the subject is able to pass responsibility, and thus the pain of having to choose, onto the abstraction 'experiment'. "I am not choosing, the experiment is choosing." People in this situation, as in the above example ("La Jeu de la Mort") often say to their victims "It's not me doing it, they want me to. I am only doing what I am being made to do."

"Our conscious motivations, ideas, and beliefs are a blend of false information, biases, irrational passions, rationalizations, prejudices, in which morsels of truth swim around and give the reassurance albeit false, that the whole mixture is real and true. The thinking processes attempt to organize this whole cesspool of illusions according to the laws of plausibility. This level of consciousness is supposed to reflect reality; it is the map we use for organizing our life."
— Erich Fromm (To Have or to Be? The Nature of the Psyche)
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.

La Jeu de la Mort
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
Login to comment.

Email This Post to a Friend
"The Menace Within"

Separate multiple emails with a comma. Limit 5.


Success! Your email has been sent!

close window

This website uses cookies.

This website uses cookies to improve user experience. By using this website you consent to all cookies in accordance with our Privacy Policy.

I agree
Learn More