Instructions on how to be evil

I’d always wondered about the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Not about the events that unfolded in those mock-up basement cells, or the ethics of carrying out the work – which reportedly had to be abandoned before completion on account of the dangers to the mental health of the ‘prisoners’ at the hands of their ‘guards’.

No: my doubts were more prosaic. All the participants were young American lads, none of whom were black. They’d all grown up in the same culture – the generous, outgoing, competitive and armed-to-the-teeth culture of mid-century America which brought us everything from Reid technique interrogation to the moon landings. What would some other country’s – or religion’s – lads do? Or lasses, or a mixture? Or more-mature people, or children?

Was ‘Lord of the Flies’ inevitable once some people had power over others in a bounded space?

Now we hear news that all was not as it seemed.

This article points to a recording in which one of the Stanford experiments’ organisers – a student of Professor Zimbardo’s – is in conversation with one of the prison ‘guards’. The experimenter is admonishing the ‘guard’ for not rising to his role – not ‘being tough’ enough.  According to the article, this and other exhortations to more aggressive behaviour than had arisen naturally were not mentioned in the research write-up.

A more in-depth article tells that all the ‘guards’ were briefed before the simulation began, even though the final write-up and the publicity surrounding the experiments imply that their behaviours arose spontaneously – purely because of the situation in which they were placed.

Where does that leave the conclusion the experiments appeared to demonstrate at the time: that there’s an evil inherent in the ‘prison’ situation itself?

And given that plenty of the information cited in these articles appears to have been around for some time, I wonder why are we hearing it now – right when the issue of imprisonment is hitting the headlines.




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