Have We Learned the Terrible Lessons of the Stanford Experiment?

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A guard stands behind bars at the Adjustment Center during a media tour of death row at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California, on December 29. Reuters

This article first appeared on the Anything Peaceful site.

The most revealing film I've seen in the past year is The Stanford Prison Experiment. I highly recommend that you see it. If we took its lessons seriously, we would rethink more than just our prison system. We would rethink the whole system of government.

If I learned about this experiment in college, I had since forgotten about it. The experiment demonstrates the extent to which a title and an institutional context fundamentally affect our perceptions of ourselves, and how quickly we adapt to our assigned roles of master or subject. The experiment pertained to prison roles, but it applies to the whole of life.

The film tells the true story of the experiment conducted in 1971 by psychologist Philip Zimbardo. He gathered a group of 15 paid volunteers to be assigned the role of either prisoner or guard, and set up a fake prison in the basement of a college building. The roles were assigned by a coin toss.

What happened next is terrifying and revealing. Within the first day, the guards—told to maintain control but given no specifics beyond being told not to use physical violence—became psychologically and physically abusive. You can see them warming up to the role very quickly.

The prisoners also adapted to their new role, even taking on new identities and losing a sense of their own personalities. A priest comes to evaluate them and finds that the prisoners refer to themselves by their numbers.

As you watch, and the morality and sanity of the scene begin to decline, the viewer has a deep sense of alarm, though you both understand and expect the results. The descent into the depths happens so rapidly, when the film announces the end of Day 1, that you have to be startled. How could things go so wrong so fast? The experiment was supposed to last two weeks.

In the following days, the guards, determined only to control the prisoners, resort to quasi-torture to elicit compliance. They set up rooms for privileged people and rooms for punished people. They hoped for a dynamic whereby prisoners aspire to move from one to the other.

What they got was a series of psychological breakdowns, deep depression, panic, terror and a general atmosphere for freaking out. It was so bad that the psychologist, fearing legal trouble, ended the experiment after only six days. It just couldn't go on.

The psychologist himself even found himself drawn in, playing the role of the prison supervisor and tolerating far more humiliation and abuse than he should have. It was only once his girlfriend intervened with a dose of reality that he snapped out of it.

Experiments such as these are now mostly banned by the profession because they are considered unethical. They probably are, but it is a shame that we lack the ability to study the phenomenon of authority more extensively. This study, together with the famous Stanley Milgram study, tells us more about human nature than we like to admit in many contexts.

The New Yorker recounts another experiment with somewhat different results, and I approve of the author's conclusion: "The lesson of Stanford isn't that any random human being is capable of descending into sadism and tyranny. It's that certain institutions and environments demand those behaviors—and, perhaps, can change them."

The study reminded me of the last time I was in jail for a few hours. I had been snagged in a bureaucratic foul-up over a traffic ticket. I stood there behind bars just amazed at how much injustice that one day was being perpetuated by the guards. Without exception, they repeated the phrase "Just doin' my job" as a way of justifying their behavior.

How much does prison, and the power of being a prison guard, transform a person? It can drive a sweet student to incipient despotism. That's the message I took from the experiment.

None of us are totally above it. Power over others is the golden ring, something that reaches into the darkest parts of our souls and brings them to the surface.

Power is such a corrupting force in the human heart that it can overcome the best intentions, the most earnest ethical training, the strongest faith in transcendence and even the meekest of temperaments.

As John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty, "The disposition of mankind, whether as rulers or as fellow-citizens to impose their own opinions and inclinations as a rule of conduct on others, is so energetically supported by some of the best and by some of the worst feelings incident to human nature, that it is hardly ever kept under restraint by anything but want of power."

The replacement of power with peace is a priority for human well-being. That's the lesson of the Stanford prison experiment. But it's not the only lesson. Even in the absence of unjust power, humane cooperation between people requires something else: opportunities and incentives to value each other as human beings. This is the glorious gift that commerce gives society. It helps us find value in each other and inspires others to find value in us.

In the prison experiment, there was no commerce. It didn't run long enough for "corruption" to emerge, such that prisoners learned to trade favors and develop relationships with each other and with the guards. It was a setting devoid of opportunities for exchange and long-run cooperation. That created the strangest of things: a mini-society without a shred of dignity that quickly devolved into pure exploitation of man by man.

This message is not just about the ghastliness of prison life. It is about the big and small horrors of life when exchange is absent and relationships are governed solely by the control of some by others.

If we took this lesson to heart, the world would look very different.

Jeffrey A. Tucker is a distinguished fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education.

Have We Learned the Terrible Lessons of the Stanford Experiment? | Opinion