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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Why Good People Do Bad Things

The following is a piece I wrote for my student newspaper, The Daily Athenaeum, that was rejected as an opinion piece because it was a "book review." False, reading comprehension FAIL on the part of my editor. So here it is for people to enjoy, and hopefully, learn from. - TE

With a break from school nearly here, you see an ad in the newspaper looking for college-aged volunteers for a study. It pays well, $84 a day, and there doesn't seem to be a lot of actual work involved. You need the money for the break coming up, so why not do it?

While this could easily fit into our present time and campus, this scenario actually took place in the Summer of 1971 at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. The “study” was to be known as the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Out of 75 applicants, a group of 24 males was finally chosen after filtering out those with criminal backgrounds, psychological impairments, or medical problems. Selected for their stable psychological health and relatively normal middle-class backgrounds, these college students were then told they would be part of a 2 week study that paid $15 a day ($84 in 2011 dollars).

The research team led by Dr. Phillip Zimbardo would then lead these previously normal college students into a Kafka-esque hell that got so out of control that the 2 week study was stopped after only 6 days. The purpose of the experiment was to find out whether or not certain personality traits of prisoners and guards led to abuse in prisons.

With their make-shift prison built in the basement of the psychology building on campus, research team and participants chosen, the experiment began in earnest on August 14, 1971.

The 24 participants were randomly chosen to be either prisoners or guards. The prisoners would be given only back-open hospital smocks to wear and a pantyhose cap to simulate shaved heads. Those chosen to be guards however were given mock khaki uniforms, wooden batons, and mirrored sunglasses to wear for the duration of the study.

While the atmosphere on the first day was like a summer camp, everyone supposedly cognizant that they were all just “playing roles”, by the second day a riot had broken out. Despite making them go through humiliating procedures like stripping down naked in front of each other to be hosed down, given dress-like outfits to wear, and made to do push-ups or sing songs during “line-ups,” the guards all met and decided that they had been too soft on the prisoners.

The experiment continued to barrel downhill as the guards knowingly used dehumanizing psychological tactics to control them. Cleaning of toilets with hands and toothbrushes. Disruption of sleep patterns. Creation of a privileged cell for those prisoners loyal to the guards. Denial of mattresses, blankets, bathroom trips, and bedpans, were even followed up by solitary confinement for those prisoners disloyal to the guards.

Within 36 hours of the experiment starting, the roles had become so entrenched that the participants began to believe this was not even an experiment at all, but a new reality. Prisoners began to plot escapes not realizing they were not prisoners at all, but college students in a study that could ask out at anytime. Even Zimbardo was affected by the experiment as he was playing the role of the warden and only realized the abuse after the graduate student he was dating, Christina Maslach, objected to the entire experiment when introduced to it.

Not only had Zimbardo been caught up in letting the experiment continue, his behavior had become more aggressive and dismissive towards his then girlfriend, now wife, Maslach. Shaken and disturbed by this close encounter with evil, Zimbardo ended the experiment after 6 days. Zimbardo has since began a spectacular journey into the psychology of why good people do bad things to make up for his complicity. More information on the experiments, and Zimbardo's conclusions, can be found at www.prisonexp.org or in his New York Times bestseller The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.

While the experiment may seem extreme and unrealistic to many people, the power that situations and groups can have over people is enormous. The theory in Zimbardo's book is that we are all susceptible to evil, and only once we admit this fact, can we avoid evil choices in deference to the moral ones. Simply saying “I'm a good person, I would never do that.” is actually a dangerous statement because it massively underestimates the power of social control in groups, where most evil is born and spread due to peer pressure and group-think.

Whether in organizations like fraternities or sororities, or even one on one in friendships and romantic relationships, college students need to be aware of the power of the situations they put themselves in and the groups they join. Evil choices are never too far away and can be made by all of us without us even realizing them at first. To avoid this pitfall, just follow the advice reached in The Lucifer Effect: “Always treat others as you would like to be treated. Always.”

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