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The 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment Showing Authoritarian Abuse Still Relevant Today

The experiment was the brainchild of Stanford University psychology professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who provided unequivocal proof that, under the right conditions, power and authority often blur the lines of right and wrong and corrupt the psyche to perform unthinkable acts, including the abuse of our fellow human.

The 1971 study recruited 24 students to participate in a roleplay experiment in which nine would be assigned as “jailers” or “prison guards” and 15 would be assigned as captives. The experiment took place in the basement of one of the Stanford buildings, which was converted into a makeshift jail, complete with impenetrable jail cells. The structure was designed to assure that the “imprisoned” students could not casually discontinue the experiment at their will, and it also assured that the prison guards had complete and utter control over their captives.

The roleplay would be performed over a two-week period but was subsequently shut down after only five days because the student guards became so physically and verbally abusive to student prisoners that irreparable harm seemed likely. Zimbardo was forced to intervene out of fear for the wellbeing of his imprisoned students who displayed signs of extreme stress, anxiety, and helplessness as a result of the excessive force and abuse being levied against them.

Was it the role that each student played when assigned the authority as “guard,” or did these student guards already have a violent and controlling disposition prior to their assignment? The answer was obvious to Zimbardo in that the selection process was entirely random, and the students selected as “jailers” showed no obvious sign of aggression when compared to those selected as “prisoner.” Zimbardo’s findings suggest that it is the role given to the student “guards” that changed their personality and relaxed their sense of conscience. The title of “jailer,” in and of itself it seems, inspired a larger than life, more authoritarian role, and one that seemed to permit them to believe they could act with impunity.

Fast forward to today. As we view the scenes on national news that illuminate from the flat screens in our living room, we become mesmerized by the violence playing out in the streets of cities like Portland, Rochester, Kenosha, or Minneapolis. Suddenly, we find ourselves taking sides with a certain faction of that unrest, and we allow a small part our personality to become enraged even while sitting alone at home. We experience anger, frustration, stress, or helplessness, depending on the social narrative we have adopted for ourselves. The Stanford experiment may actually play out in our life as we view world events from the sidelines. We find ourselves deeply committed to the narrative with which we have aligned. We take sides and often block out the opposition’s perspective as nonsense or doublespeak. Even from our living room, we find ourselves playing the role of protestor, or anti-protestor, or law enforcement, and we fantasize about how we might make a difference. We grow more emotionally vested from the energy that radiates out of our television or computer screen, and we begin to realize that we relate to the role of authoritarian or that of victim, but seldom are we able to appreciate both.

Consider a recent scene involving a group of protesting mothers in Portland, each standing side by side in a show of resistance with interlocked arms. These “moms,” clad in bicycle helmets, took a position in front of other protestors both as a show of solidarity and also as a statement that they wished to protect fellow protestors from police brutality. They believed that their presence, as a group of non-violent, peaceful moms, would likely curtail police from further brutality. The moms were dead wrong. It seems that several military-clad law enforcement officers assigned to contain the protest perceived these particular protestors as no different from any other and, as such, proceeded to spray tear gas in the face of several “moms” in a show of force that suggested, “we have the authority, you don’t.”

What compelled these officers to act with such unnecessary aggression? Was it the uniform? Was it the energy from the street? Was it the sense of camaraderie and loyalty they held for their fellow officers as part of a larger systemic mission? Zimbardo would likely suggest that their sense of authority in that environment devolved into something known as “structural violence.”

Dr. Bandy X. Lee, a forensic psychiatrist at Yale School of Medicine, attests that, much like the Stanford Prison Experiment, it is “about the influence of institutional structure. In defense of such overzealous or authoritarian actions by individuals representing law enforcement, we make the convenient excuse that it is merely the actions of ‘a few bad apples.’” Lee, however, believes that such acts of aggression are a product of “structural violence,” which she describes as “the most lethal form of violence.”

Punishment v. Therapy

“Structural violence” is borne out of
an authoritarian regime or a culture of punitive rules and laws. It is the mindset that believes punishment, rather than behavioral therapy, is a more effective means of criminal justice. Consider the prison system. One may simply evaluate a prison system’s record on re-offense and recidivism. The U.S. maintains one of the worst recidivism rates on the world stage yet qualifies as one of the most punitive systems, housing more prisoners per capita and under longer sentences than any other country in the world. Simply put, it is failure on multiple levels.

Societies such as those found in the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland follow a very different criminal justice and penal philosophy. The premise for these advanced countries is to focus on reform rather than retribution. From the moment of entry, the system is designed to focus on re-entry back to society. These penal systems are staffed predominantly by behavioral psychologists and social workers dedicated to behavioral enhancement. The programming is designed to assimilate a prisoner back to his community as a productive member of society. Prisoners are often housed in apartment-style living quarters where they are tasked with maintaining a budget while supporting a work schedule. They are praised for accomplishments rather than condemned for simply having been incarcerated. And, in many of these more advanced penal systems, prisoners are released with a sealed record so that no one in society is aware that the prisoner was ever incarcerated. To brand an individual as a felon for life is considered ludicrous by most advanced countries. Their mission is to give prisoners a true second chance at life.

Unfortunately, the opposite is true for the American penal system. In fact, nearly every aspect of the system is designed to disenfranchise a prisoner in an attempt to assure that he or she remains a “ward of the state” for life. Most prisoners, upon entry, are immediately dehumanized and are identified simply as a file number. Prison guards are instructed to use first names, never to shake hands or interact on a personal level, and they are discouraged from offering compliments or encouragement to even the most productive prisoner. “Correctional officer” is the epitome of oxymoronic, yet it is used throughout the American penal system.

We also must consider the number of prisoners in the U.S., both state and federal, who perish at the hands of violent authoritarian guards. According to another contributor to the authoritarian theory of “structural violence,” Dr. David Reiss, also a professor at Yale, states that, “under certain circumstances, people can act in ways that are very sadistic, that are very authoritarian, that are not part of what they consider their usual personality.”

‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’

We see this every day in America’s prisons. Correctional officers who travel to work from their home in a suburban neighborhood who have families, attend church, volunteer as coaches, and are otherwise good, decent, God-fearing individuals until they arrive “at the office.” Many guards as well as police officers undergo a kind of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” metamorphosis when they begin their shift. Some guards arrive onto the prison yard with a certain vengeance against their captives. They take on the role of disciplinarian driven by a personal crusade to punish those in prison for the prisoner’s previous misdeeds.

We see the same disposition displayed by police officers arriving on scene at a protest. All too often, these are the same individuals who deny that they are cruel, sadistic, or imposing, and they are often the very officers who receive praise and promotion from their superiors after an act of aggression. Reiss goes on to suggest, “it’s a process of first having to get past the denial and acknowledge that there is a problem.”

An observation that came out of the Stanford experiment was gleaned from the students who played the role of prisoner. They each felt powerless at the hands of their captors, and they began to believe that there was nothing they could do or say that would make a difference in those who were given the authority to imprison them. This very sentiment seems to resonate among many of the anti-authoritarian protesters who petition for justice through peaceful protests yet find their plea for change simply falling on deaf ears. Most believe that individual officers are compassionate and have empathy for a system in need of reform, but they play a role during the protest and often find themselves acting as part of a cohesive fighting unit commissioned to “defeat the enemy.”

Once an officer dons the uniform, he or she now represent the “authoritarian rule” of “law and order.” The regime takes on a personality of its own, tasked with the mission of presenting an overwhelming show of force to protect the sanctity of the system. This seems to be the moment when the peaceful protest and the role of peacekeeper breaks down. It is at this boiling point that projectiles are thrown, batons are unleashed, and sometimes bullets fly. It is war with Americans on one side and Americans on the other.

The “authoritarian rule” and the unintended outcome of “structural violence” happens in our prisons and on our streets, and throughout the criminal justice system. Unlike the Stanford experiment, today’s criminal justice system is unfortunately not an experiment. In 1971, the Stanford experiment quickly reached a level of uncontrollable chaos and would have presented catastrophic results had professor Zimbardo not intervened. All that may be needed today is the same level-headed leadership to intervene, to “pull the plug” and to snap everyone back to the reality – a reality that we are all on the same side. 


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