The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – 40 years on

One of the most fascinating and (in)famous experiments in social psychology began in the bowels of Stanford University 40 years ago next month. The experiment intended to evaluate how people react to being powerless. However, on conclusion it took a broader look at role assignment and reaction to authority.

The Stanford Prison Experiment incarcerated male college student volunteers in a mock prison for 6 fateful days. Some of the students were selected to be prison guards, the remainder would be prisoners. The researchers, led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo encouraged the guards to think of themselves as actual guards in a real prison. What happened during these 6 days in “prison” is the stuff of social science legend. The results continues to shock psychologists to this day; many were not prepared for the outcome after 6 days, which saw guards take their roles to the extreme becoming overarchingly authoritarian and mentally abusive, and prisoners become down-trodden and eventually rebellious. A whistle-blower eventually called the experiment to an abrupt end (it was to have continued for 2 weeks).

Forty years on, researchers went back to interview professor Zimbardo and some of the participating guards and prisoners to probe their feelings now. Recollections from one of the guards is below.

[div class=attrib]From Stanford Magazine:[end-div]

I was just looking for some summer work. I had a choice of doing this or working at a pizza parlor. I thought this would be an interesting and different way of finding summer employment.

The only person I knew going in was John Mark. He was another guard and wasn’t even on my shift. That was critical. If there were prisoners in there who knew me before they encountered me, then I never would have been able to pull off anything I did. The act that I put on—they would have seen through it immediately.

What came over me was not an accident. It was planned. I set out with a definite plan in mind, to try to force the action, force something to happen, so that the researchers would have something to work with. After all, what could they possibly learn from guys sitting around like it was a country club? So I consciously created this persona. I was in all kinds of drama productions in high school and college. It was something I was very familiar with: to take on another personality before you step out on the stage. I was kind of running my own experiment in there, by saying, “How far can I push these things and how much abuse will these people take before they say, ‘knock it off?'” But the other guards didn’t stop me. They seemed to join in. They were taking my lead. Not a single guard said, “I don’t think we should do this.”

The fact that I ramped up the intimidation and the mental abuse without any real sense as to whether I was hurting anybody— I definitely regret that. But in the long run, no one suffered any lasting damage. When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, my first reaction was, this is so familiar to me. I knew exactly what was going on. I could picture myself in the middle of that and watching it spin out of control. When you have little or no supervision as to what you’re doing, and no one steps in and says, “Hey, you can’t do this”—things just keep escalating. You think, how can we top what we did yesterday? How do we do something even more outrageous? I felt a deep sense of familiarity with that whole situation.

Sometimes when people know about the experiment and then meet me, it’s like, My God, this guy’s a psycho! But everyone who knows me would just laugh at that.

[div class=attrib]More from theSource here.[end-div]