Saturday, May 15, 2004


Like most people, I have been horrified by the photos of guards abusing prisoners in prisons in Iraq. I don't think anyone should be surprised, though; this is about the culture of an organization whose job is to kill people efficiently. It is about the war on terror explicitly or implicitly shifting the boundaries of what is right and appropriate. Often during the last two or three years, I have read or heard on the radio that we - the US - allow our prisoners to be interrogated in countries where we know the standard of treatment will be lower. This is also about the way that a role and an environment can encourage certain kinds of behavior, without being an excuse for the individual's lack of moral judgment.

Anyone who has taken Psych 1 at Stanford - with Professor Zimbardo - has been thinking about the Stanford Prison Experiment. The brief summary: Back in the 1970's, Zimbardo - a charismatic, stretch-the-rules showman psychology prof - recruited a number of students who were at Stanford in the summer to participate in a 2-week psych experiment. He screened the students in interviews, but did not tell them much about the experiment. Any of us could have been one of these unsuspecting participants. Within the next few weeks, half were recruited to be "guards" at a new prison constructed in the basement of the Stanford psych department. The other half were "arrested" and taken to the prison.

Our study of prison life began, then, with an average group of healthy, intelligent, middle-class males. These boys were arbitrarily divided into two groups by a flip of the coin. Half were randomly assigned to be guards, the other to be prisoners. It is important to remember that at the beginning of our experiment there were no differences between boys assigned to be a prisoner and boys assigned to be a guard.

The experiment was supposed to last 2-weeks. They cut it short after only 6 days. The guards were becoming more and more sadistic, and the prisoners more and more depressed and dangerously stressed.

You really have to read the description of what happened next - and keep in mind that it took only 6 days! Everyone - even the social psych experimenters - got into their roles.

At this point it became clear that we had to end the study. We had created an overwhelmingly powerful situation -- a situation in which prisoners were withdrawing and behaving in pathological ways, and in which some of the guards were behaving sadistically. Even the "good" guards felt helpless to intervene, and none of the guards quit while the study was in progress. Indeed, it should be noted that no guard ever came late for his shift, called in sick, left early, or demanded extra pay for overtime work.

What would you do if you found yourself a prisoner? A guard?

How does this relate to schools? How do teachers and students - and parents - take on certain roles, encouraged by the culture and environment of the institution? When are the roles positive? When are they negative?


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