The Man Who Played with Absolute Power


You are probably familiar with the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which paid volunteer students assumed the roles of prison guards and inmates. The subjects became so submerged in their roles that the "guards" began exhibiting sadistic behavior and the "inmates" approached mental breakdown. The experiment was scheduled to last two weeks, but was halted after six days. Philip Zimbardo, the professor who conducted the 1971 experiment, gives us some of the details.

Did subjects try to resist their roles as prisoners or guards?

They did. We did things that made it very realistic: parole board hearings, parents visiting. But students in 1971 were anti-war activists. Many students on many campuses protested against the war, were beaten up or suffered abuse by their local police. So nobody wanted to be a prison guard. Initially, it was very difficult for the boys playing prison guards to get into their role. But, the second day of the study, the prisoners rebelled. They did not want to be dehumanized, because one way to take away power is to take away your name, your style, the way you wear your hair and so forth.

How did the guards react to the rebellion?

All 12 guards came in, and they crushed the rebellion. At that point, the guards said, “These are dangerous prisoners. We have to show who is in charge, who is the boss.” That changed everything. That’s when it became a prison. No one used the word “experiment” again. The guards used physical force—stripped the prisoners  naked, put them in chains, put them in solitary confinement. There was actually fighting. The guards used psychological force to make prisoners feel helpless and hopeless. That’s when I should have intervened and did not.

Zimbardo also talks about the intoxication of absolute power and how Abu Ghraib compared with his experiment in an interview at Nautilus. -via Digg

Read how the Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted here

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