How is it possible that completely “normal” people can do such horrible things?
The Stanford Experiment is an example of how something so unbelievable can actually happen. In 1971 Phillip Zimbardo conducted an experiment that would help us better understand how power can affect people and how they can commit such evil against other human beings. Zimbardo wanted to know “what happens when you put good people in an evil place? Does humanity win over evil, or does evil triumph?” (Zimbardo). In the experiment 24 undergraduate students from Stanford were randomly assigned the role of either guard or prisoner. The first day was without tumult, but after the first day the students began acting in their role. The guards started to take advantage of the power they had been given and became sadistic in their actions. The prisoners likewise began acting depressed and withdrawn. The experiment was supposed to last two weeks, but was ended on the sixth day because the experiment had become too horrific.
The experiment suggests that relatively good, normal people can do bad things in specific social surroundings and role expectations. According to Zimbardo, “good people can do terrible things, depending on their social surrounding and expectations. When thrown into a social context of unchecked authority, anonymity and high stress, average people can become exceptional monsters” (Pg. 209).
A stigma was placed on the prisoners. This label not only changed behaviors of people around them, such as the guards, but it also changed the way they saw themselves. The labeling theory of social deviance explains how these Stanford undergrads became so deeply embedded in their roles. Labeling theory states that people unconsciously read how other people see them and they act to these labels, and over time this label becomes part of the way that person views his or herself.
Another example of how social situations can cause individuals to do things they normally would not think of doing can be seen in the Milgram experiment, which was done in 1961 at Yale University. The study was set up to find out if the men in the Nazi party were pathological or just following orders. The study showed that regular individuals can take part in terrible acts against other people, without an intention or want to harm anyone, they just simply follow orders. It attempted to explain why people, specifically Nazi officers, would behave in pathological ways. Were they emotionally and psychologically imbalanced or did they just follow the orders given to them? The Milgram experiment tested to see just how far people could be pushed to follow orders when believing that they were being destructive to another human being. The results of this study showed that people will listen to authority even when the things they are asked to do are against their desire to respect others humanity.
Some psychologists argue, a different perspective, however, that there is no impact of society in these cases. That the behavior of these people is not related to the limitless power they are given but instead due to a psychological pre-disposition to act aggressively.
In the case of the Stanford Prison Experiment or the Milgram Experiment, was the limitless power given to the guards and guidelines given to them by the experimenters the cause of their brutal behavior? Was the stigma associated with being a prisoner an indicator of the emotional breakdowns and rebellious behavior seen in the experiment? Carnahan and Sam McFarland conducted their own experiment to evaluate whether the students who volunteered for a study of prison life have dispositions connected to abusive behaviors. Carnahan and McFarland used a similar newspaper ad like the ad that was used in the Stanford experiment to get student participants. Two ads were used one with “prison life” in the ad and one without any mention of it. The study found that the volunteers for the prison life study scored much higher on measures of abuse related dispositions such as aggressiveness, authoritarianism, narcissism, and social dominance, and lower on empathy and altruism.
A question that arises from looking at these experiments is whether or not these people are really ”normal” or on some level, pathologically take some enjoyment from the positions of power they are given? Are the reactions of all the subjects in fact only shaped by the social context? (ie. the guard-prisoner relationship)
By Ashley Burgess and Charlotte Brown