Tuesday, May 04, 2004

The Stanford Prison Experiment

Not long after I read of the violence Americans have done to Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, I realized the similarity to the Stanford Prison Experiment. (I'm not the only one to notice, nor the only blogger.)

Stanford Professor Philip G. Zimbardo conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971. In the experiment, he built a prison in a basement hallway of the Stanford Psychology Department, and he sought local college students to serve as prisoners and guards. According to Zimbardo,

The guards were given no specific training on how to be guards. Instead they were free, within limits, to do whatever they thought was necessary to maintain law and order in the prison and to command the respect of the prisoners. The guards made up their own set of rules, which they then carried into effect under the supervision of Warden David Jaffe, an undergraduate from Stanford University. They were warned, however, of the potential seriousness of their mission and of the possible dangers in the situation they were about to enter, as, of course, are real guards who voluntarily take such a dangerous job.

In Abu Ghraib, the "[t]raining was inadequate and superiors rarely made rounds"; "guards made up their own rules and superiors condoned their actions."

As the Stanford Prison Experiment proceeded, the guards became increasingly brutal toward the prisoners:

Every aspect of the prisoners' behavior fell under the total and arbitrary control of the guards. Even going to the toilet became a privilege which a guard could grant or deny at his whim. Indeed, after the nightly 10:00 P.M. lights out "lock-up," prisoners were often forced to urinate or defecate in a bucket that was left in their cell. On occasion the guards would not allow prisoners to empty these buckets, and soon the prison began to smell of urine and feces - further adding to the degrading quality of the environment. . . .
The guards again escalated very noticeably their level of harassment, increasing the humiliation they made the prisoners suffer, forcing them to do menial, repetitive work such as cleaning out toilet bowls with their bare hands. The guards had prisoners do push-ups, jumping jacks, whatever the guards could think up. . . .

The increasing brutality of the situation ultimately forced Zimbardo to end the experiment early:

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.
I ended the study prematurely for two reasons. First, we had learned through videotapes that the guards were escalating their abuse of prisoners in the middle of the night when they thought no researchers were watching and the experiment was "off." Their boredom had driven them to ever more pornographic and degrading abuse of the prisoners.
Second, Christina Maslach, a recent Stanford Ph.D. brought in to conduct interviews with the guards and prisoners, strongly objected when she saw our prisoners being marched on a toilet run, bags over their heads, legs chained together, hands on each other's shoulders. Filled with outrage, she said, "It's terrible what you are doing to these boys!" Out of 50 or more outsiders who had seen our prison, she was the only one who ever questioned its morality. Once she countered the power of the situation, however, it became clear that the study should be ended.
And so, after only six days, our planned two-week prison simulation was called off.

Unfortunately, the situation at Abu Ghraib lasted far, far longer than six days.