I owe Philip Zimbardo a lot.
The more I think about it, it was he who first introduced me to psychology. When my AP Psychology teacher in high school decided he was too lazy to teach (and given that my class was the last block of the day, that was often), he would put in a video of the goofy looking New Yorker with the outdated goatee. And then, my mind would fall in love.
Though I first encountered Philip Zimbardo through his PBS series Discovering Psychology, many of you probably know him better as the author of the now famous Stanford Prison Experiment.
The SPE, now coming up on its 40th anniversary, is a foundational case in the study of human nature and a hallmark accomplishment of American psychology.
The Stanford Prison Experiment
In it, Zimbardo (a Stanford professor at the time) and his research team designed a mock prison in the basement of a Stanford University campus building. They then selected 24 volunteer undergraduate students and assigned them randomly into two categories: prisoners and guards. The guards were given a briefing on their assigned duties one day before the experiment began. The prisoners were “arrested” without warning and brought to their prison cells, where they were given prison uniforms, chained at the ankles, and assigned a number.
What happened next is disturbing not only to scientists and psychologists, but to any human being who considers its implications. Six days into the planned two-week experiment, Zimbardo and his team were forced to shut it down. The guards, who merely took eight-hour shifts in the experiment, became brutal and emotionally abusive.
They attempted to dehumanize the prisoners, forcing them to repeat over and over their assigned number until they no longer referred to themselves by name. They made the prisoners perform manual labor, at one point forcing them to build a “new prison” due to rumors of a possible escape. After an attempted “prisoner riot”, the guards attacked them with fire extinguishers (despite physical abuse being strictly forbidden in the rules of the experiment). Worse still, prisoners were forced to sleep on the floor, were not allowed to empty the buckets they used to relieve themselves, and at times were required to remain naked.
Given the effect of their newfound role on the guards, one can imagine the impact it had on the prisoners, who were provided no respite from their part in Zimbardo’s play. Not all of the prisoners lasted the full six days, as some had to be removed after having psychotic breakdowns. Many of the prisoners were found to have sustained long-term emotional damage, an unforeseen aspect of the experiment that ensures it will never be repeated.
One might think that the SPE would have doomed Zimbardo to social infamy and scientific shame. In reality, quite the opposite has been true. Zimbardo seized upon the outrage that resulted from his experiment and used it to pioneer a new found advocacy. Now, Zimbardo is considered an authority on the psychology of human nature and has recently reemerged in the public spotlight due to a real-life case of prisoner abuse.
Following the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in 2004, Zimbardo testified in court on behalf of the American prison guards. His argument was simple: The SPE is irrefutable evidence that situations and roles are extremely powerful entities that few individuals can resist.
Though he did not advocate absolving the guards of their crimes entirely, he strongly urged that their sentences be lessened.
Following his testimony, Zimbardo authored a book entitled The Lucifer Effect, describing this powerful phenomenon and the dire need for many real-world changes to help prevent situations like Abu Ghraib and, to a degree, the Holocaust from happening again.
One of the central questions that emerges from this discussion is one of personal responsibility.
I haven’t read enough of Zimbardo’s work to say confidently where he stands on this continuum. But, he certainly leads us to believe that the individual should (at least in these extreme examples) be considered secondary to the situation.
Though we could continue down this road for a long time, I’d like to wrap it up for now with two thoughts:
First….can we conceive of a situation in which a given individual, though physically capable of making the “right” decision, is “ultimately” incapable of choosing to make that decision?
Second…. if we are to accept that either few individuals or no individuals can make the “right” decision in a certain situation, what are the later implications of not holding them responsible for the wrong decision?