“Not Everyone Has The Capacity To Do Anything Regardless Of The Circumstances”

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo, mastermind of the notorious Stanford Prison Experiment, which provided a chilling look at how quickly and thoroughly jailers can become dehumanized–a dress rehearsal, if you will, for Abu Ghraib–just did an Ask Me Anything on Reddit. He discusses the SPE and his new e-book about the effect Internet porn and video games have on boys. A few exchanges about Stanford.


Question (jascination):

For those unaware, modern-day psychological studies (or anything even remotely involving testing humans) have to go through fairly rigorous scrutiny from ethics committees to ensure that no harm lasting damage is done. Up until relatively recent times these committees weren’t necessary and researchers had much more freedom – often at the expense of their subjects.

I remember seeing a video of one of John Watson’s experiments, on operant conditioning, where he would purposely scare a baby every time it showed interest in animals. Eventually the baby was conditioned to fear the animals.

In short: You learn a lot without ethics, but you often harm the people involved.

Answer (drzim):

In the olden days researchers had total power to do anything to their “subjects” whether human or animal, children or prisoners– in the name of science. Some abused this privilege and Human Research committees were developed in order to create a better balance of power between researchers and their participant,and are now essential for the conduct of all research. A problem is created however, when they become excessively conservative and reject almost all research that could conceivably “stress” participants even by having them think about a stressful situation. Thus nothing like the Milgram study or my Stanford Prison study could ever be done again. Is that good? Is that bad? Open issue for debate.


Question (Gelinas)

I think we need to be careful when using expectations in describing how people act in these situations though. For example with Milgram I think obedience to authority was more of a factor than expectations. Thus the higher success rate(shock rate)with the teacher wearing a lab coat. There are other problems with Milgram too, he used the same teacher each time who got efficient at producing a specific result, which is interesting I think when we use him in talking about perpetrators of genocide. But it’s worth noting that the individual encouraging the shocks was also learning. With the SPE, Zimbardo got results from ‘irst timers’ which is surprising, or not depending on your view.

Answer (drzim)

In the Milgram study, SPE, and many other similar studies on the power of social situations to transform the behavior of good people in evil directions, the conclusion is the majority can easily be led to do so, but there is always a minority who resist, who refuse to obey or comply. In one sense, we can think of them as heroic because they challenge the power of negative influence agents (gangs, drugs dealers, sex traffickers; in the prison study it’s me, in the Milgram experiment it’s Milgram). The good news is there’s always a minority who resist, so no, not everyone has the capacity to do anything regardless of the circumstances. I recently started a non-profit, the Heroic Imagination Project in an attempt to increase the amount of resistors who will do the right thing when the vast majority are doing the wrong thing. There needs to be more research though, and we are in the process of studying heroism and the psychology of whistleblowing; curiously, there is very little so far compared to the extensive body of research on aggression, violence, and evil.


Question (opsomath): 

Based on your results, how would you suggest American imprisonment be altered, if at all?

Answer (drzim):

Shortly after the time we first published the results of SPE, the head graduate student of the research, Craig Haney, and I became very much involved in prison reform in California, working with the department of corrections, teaching courses on the psychology of imprisonment, organizing courses for prisoners in Soledad prison, being expert witnesses in trials about solitary confinement as cruel and unusual punishment, and also working to highlight the psychologically and physically devastating effects of “supermax” prisons.

However, in 1973, there were about 350,000 Americans in prison. This year there are more than 2 million Americans caged in the prison system at local, state, and federal levels. More than twice as much as any other country in the world. It is a national disgrace as far as I’m concerned, and with those big numbers goes reduced programs for rehabilitation, recreation, therapy, and really any concern about prisoners ever being able to live a normal life outside the prison. And this is because 3 factors: economic, political, and racial. Prisons have become a big business for many communities; many prisons are becoming privatized, which means they are for profit only. They have become political in so far as politicians all want to be seen as tough on crime, encouraging prosecutors and judges to give prisoners maximum sentences, including 25 years to life, for non-violent offenses. Racially, prisons have become dumping grounds for black and hispanic young men, so that there are now more of these young men in prisons than in college.

The whole system is designed not to help prisoners. At this point, my optimism about improving the American prison system has been severely tested and it will really take a major change in public opinion and also in basic attitudes from the top down. It’s a systemic problem; it’s not like some warden in a particular prison is a bad guy, everyone’s attitudes needs to change to become more humane. This needs to start with the President, governors, and mayors taking a strong compassionate stance. Pragmatically, citizens have to realize that it costs them through their taxes $1 million to keep one prisoner locked up for 25 years.”


“Jesus Christ, I’m burning up inside–don’t you know?”:

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