The Stanford Prison Experiment- Psychology Is Nuts
‘Good triumphs over evil.’ Millions worldwide believe this as a fact; a truism. So why would anyone experiment whether this is really true? Yet that is what psychologist Philip Zimbardo of the prestigious Stanford University set out to do. That was in 1971. The world was horrified at his horrendous experiment. The results were simply horrific.
Yet Zimbardo was determined to discover whether humans truly are wired against evil. To find out, the scientist turned nuts-literally. He converted a college basement into a real subterranean prison. Students were assigned as either guards or inmates. The guards got a Khaki uniform, batons and other menacing regalia. The inmates were each shoved into a tiny, dungy cell, stripped of all dignity, traumatized and brutalized. Soon, everyone, including Dr. Zimberdo himself, lost sense of reality. They forgot that this was a mere experiment. The tragic drama stopped days later. The world was shocked. Ethical questions arose.
Decades later, the BBC produced a documentary on the bizarre Stanford test. In its preamble, it noted that a psychologist named Stanley had carried out a similar test, a decade earlier, to determine what motivates people to obey authority unquestioningly. He confined people in a room, punishing culprits with simulated electric shock. To his horror, Stanley discovered that 2/3 of his participants were ready to torture other humans at his order. The documentary relived the 1971 incident, shedding more light. Dr Zimbardo was forced to halt the experiment after an invitee psychologist, Dr. Christina, visited the cells. The visitor was horrified and angered, jolting the stupefied Zimbardo back to his senses.
On March 13 1964, the New York Times published a news article that shocked the world. Reporter Martin Gansberg recounted the killing of 28 year-old Catherine Genovese. She was stabbed fatally, three times, by assailant Winston Moseley between 3.20 a.m. and 3.50 a.m., 14 days earlier, in Queens. In spite of pleading, no one came to her rescue. Some of the neighbours turned off their lights and went back to bed. 38 of the witnesses failed to help. The police were called later, after the woman had died.
Reflecting on the incident, in a recent lecture, Psychologist Ken brown viciously poked holes into the ‘Bystander Effect Theory.’ Brown opposed the idea that people who exist in a group are always in greater danger than loners. He attacked the ‘diffusion of responsibility theory’ that claims people fail to act, expecting others to do so. Brown reiterated that a small group’s action can change the world. He cited the Martin Luther March and the Tunisian uprising as proof.
So, then, are humans intrinsically wired against evil? What drives people to obey authority even when crimes are involved? Reflect on the significance of the Stanford experiment. Certainly, as Dr Zimbardo realized, it was an unethical experiment. Yet it proved one thing: clustered in a group, humans are capable of committing horrific atrocities. The Kenya post-election violence of 2007, for instance, shocked the world. In one incident, women and children were burnt alive in church. The police killed 400 in the name of keeping order. By far, the Rwanda genocide of 1994 is a classic example. Certainly, the good in humans can be fleeting. In the latter case, one million humans were butchered in cold blood in the struggle for power. Clearly, in spite of it’s wide condemnation, the Stanford experiment bears pertinent lessons for everyone.