How good people turn evil – Stanford Prison experiment

August 3, 2008

In the classic Stanford Prison Experiment
Philip Zimbardo took a group of ordinary students
and placed them in a mock prison, guarded by fellow
students. In less than a week, the study had
to be terminated, when the “guards” became
increasingly sadistic and the “prisoner” pathological.
Raising fundamental questions on good and evil.
Apparently most of us can be initiated
into the ranks of evil doers.

The book, the Lucifer effect, explores
how good people becomes bad.

Lucifer has of course done his job over
the centuries. In the middle ages we had
the inquisition. Where Philip Zimbardo
gives us thought provoking examples on how
good becomes bad.
I.e. The Malleus Maleficarum was required reading for
the judges of the inquisition. It begins
with a problem. How can evil exists in a world
created and governed by an all-good, all powerful
God? The answer is (was) that the Creator
allows evil to test the souls of man. Yield
to the temptations – and go to hell. Resist,
and be invited into heaven.
So to do good – evil had to be found and eliminated.
Especially, find witches and heretics and burn
them on the stake. The ardent and sincere desire to combat evil
generated evil on a larger scale than
ever seen before.

To Philip Zimbardo much of it starts when
human relationships becomes “I – it”.
Humanized relationships are “I – Thou”,
while dehumanized relationships are “I – It”,
The misperception of certain humans
as subhuman, bad humans, inhuman, dispensable,
is facilitated with labels. stereotypes and slogans –
and most importantly – when others are treated as “it”.
The Stanford prison experiment created an ecology
of dehumanization. It started with loss of freedom,
loss of privacy, and finally loss of personal identity.
It separated inmates from their past, their families etc.
Eventually, external coercive rules and arbitrary rules by guards
dictated the prisoners behaviour. Prisoners who just one week
before had been average students.
Tender caring emotions were absent among guards and
prisoners after only a few days.

“Proof” of sorts that Zimbardos thesis , that
external situations decides much of what is good
and evil, – is in fact true.

If one wants to defend human decency by saying that
the students in the Stanford Prison Experiment
were not average – Zimbardo tells you that
they were exactly that. Average.
Even though noone likes to think of themselves as average.
I.e. In a study – 86 percent of Australians rate their
job performance as above average. And 90 percent
of american business managers rate their performance
as superior to that of their average peer.

Worse – it follows that evil is within everyone:
An inventive teacher, Ron Jones, would teach
his high school students something about
Hitlers Nazi regime. Despite his forewarning to
the class about all of this – he quickly established
a new rigid classroom rule, that should be obeyed
without question.
All answers must be limited to three words or less and
preceded by “sir”. When noone challenged this or other
arbitrary rules – the classroom atmosphere began to change.
The verbally fluent students lost their positions and
the less verbal, more physically assertative took
over.
The classroom movement was named the third wave.
Each day there was a new slogan. like – “strength through
discipline”, “strength through action”, “strength
through pride”. And there would eventually be
more than 100 kids attending “a third wave rally”
outside the classroom.
When Jones finally told his students what he had
been up to – and what he wanted to demonstrate –
noone ever admitted to attenting the rally.

Another teacher, Jane Elliott, created third grade hell, when she
divided the class into blue eyed and brown eyed kids and began
telling stories about what blue eyed kids or brown eyed
kids really are like.

In Zimbados words –
Our personal identities are socially situated.
we are what we live, eat, work. It is possible to predict
a wide range of your attitudes and behaviour from
knowing your status factors – your ethnicity, social class,
education, and religion.

But still – not all is said. Occasional
a hero comes along – and can not be bullied
into accepting evil. It might be a John McCain
in Vietnamese prison that will not rat on his
country. Or it might be a Nelson Mandela
that will not answer violence with violence.

Evil does not always have the last word.
and most people eventually know what is right and
what is wrong –
But the immature, it be one prison guard, or an entire nation,
you can apparently always trick into being evil by
creating a “lucifer situation” – where evil is
“ok”.

I would have given the book better marks had there be
more on teaching us all to be Jedi in the
face of evil – as it is, to me, it only demonstrates
that circumstance plays a big part in making
average people evil. I dont think
Zimbardo is out there to explain away evil and
take responsibility away from the individual.
But he should be far more concrete and have much more
focus on all of this.

-Simon

The Lucifer Effect
Philip Zimbardo
Rider 2007

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