The hunter hunted

I didn’t know this – Zimbardo discovered that he’d become a subject of his own experiment. Read the whole thing; it’s fascinating.

Missing from the body of social-science research at the time was the direct confrontation of good versus evil, of good people pitted against the forces inherent in bad situations…Thus in 1971 was born the Stanford prison experiment, more akin to Greek drama than to university psychology study. I wanted to know who wins — good people or an evil situation — when they were brought into direct confrontation…Suddenly the guards perceived the prisoners as “dangerous”; they had to be dealt with harshly to demonstrate who was boss and who was powerless. At first, guard abuses were retaliation for taunts and disobedience. Over time, the guards became ever more abusive, and some even delighted in sadistically tormenting their prisoners…I was forced to terminate the projected two-week-long study after only six days because it was running out of control. Dozens of people had come down to our “little shop of horrors,” seen some of the abuse or its effects, and said nothing.

Until he invited a former student and current colleague.

We had started dating recently and were becoming romantically involved. When she saw the prisoners lined up with bags over their heads, their legs chained, and guards shouting abuses at them while herding them to the toilet, she got upset and refused my suggestion to observe what was happening in this “crucible of human nature.” Instead she ran out of the basement, and I followed, berating her for being overly sensitive and not realizing the important lessons taking place here. “It is terrible what YOU are doing to those boys!” she yelled at me…I too had been transformed by my role in that situation to become a person that under any other circumstances I detest — an uncaring, authoritarian boss man.

It wasn’t just the students, it was himself.

The implications of this research for law are considerable, as legal scholars are beginning to recognize. The criminal-justice system, for instance, focuses primarily on individual defendants and their “state of mind” and largely ignores situational forces…As my own experiment revealed, and as a great deal of social-psychological research before and since has confirmed, we humans exaggerate the extent to which our actions are voluntary and rationally chosen — or, put differently, we all understate the power of the situation…By recognizing the situational determinants of behavior, we can move to a more productive public-health model of prevention and intervention, and away from the individualistic medical and religious “sin” model that has never worked since its inception during the Inquisition…Group pressures, authority symbols, dehumanization of others, imposed anonymity, dominant ideologies that enable spurious ends to justify immoral means, lack of surveillance, and other situational forces can work to transform even some of the best of us into Mr. Hyde monsters, without the benefit of Dr. Jekyll’s chemical elixir. We must be more aware of how situational variables can influence our behavior. Further, we must also be aware that veiled behind the power of the situation is the greater power of the system.

This also sheds some light on the cruelty of the pope and his assistants, and the nuns at Golddenbridge. Group pressures, authority symbols, dehumanization of others, dominant ideologies – they had it all. Maybe even the ‘imposed anonymity’ – because they wore habits; they looked much alike. So: yet another lesson in what we keep learning and re-learning: beware of group pressures, authority symbols, dehumanization of others, imposed anonymity, dominant ideologies. Beware, beware, and beware again.

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