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Stanford Prison Experiment

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Stanford Prison Experiment

In 1961, Stanley Milgram conducted his famous study, subjects of which believed that they were participating in a training experiment. In fact, the subject matter was their obedience, namely a willingness to punish a student, which makes a mistake in memorizing, with more powerful electric shocks, following the instructions of the experimenter. In another famous Stanford prison experiment, conducted 10 years later by Phillip Zimbardo, one group of participants performing the role of guards tortured another group of participants acting as prisoners. These two experiments are often put on a par, and Zimbardo`s experiment causes even greater admiration in some people. However, there is nothing to admire in Zimbardo`s experiment, especially in comparison with Milgram`s experiment.

First of all, there was the so-called experimenter effect. Zimbardo himself proves this statement: “I was thinking like a prison superintendent rather than a research psychologist” (Stanford Prison Experiment, 2015). It was clearly shown in the episode when he orders “guards” to blindfold “prisoners” and chain them in order to transport them to another room. Also, it is difficult to ignore the role of Zimbardo`s leadership in establishing and managing the norms of conformity, the occurrence of which he then announced the result of the division of roles between the subjects.

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Thus, the “guards” were affected not just by the nomination for this role, but rather by the installations of Zimbardo himself, by inviting a “prison expert”, who was once really imprisoned, and maybe by someone else (for example, a real prison chaplain). Then, Zimbardo`s experiment is a fundamental repeat of the ideas and experiment of Milgram. Although it may be more vivid, brutal, close to the understanding of a wide audience. In this situation, the real sufferings of subjects are in vain from a scientific point of view (and not from the point of view of popularization of the problem and showing of its importance among the masses). Thus, it would be better if Zimbardo`s study had never been done since it is a fundamental repeat of Milgram`s study in its essence and has no justification for the real sufferings of people.

In Zimbardo`s experiment, there were no pure assignment of roles to participants and their subsequent “living on a desert island”, but there was a constant latent and explicit management process. Accordingly, this experiment did not confirm the hypothesis of independence of behavior of people, who have taken on the roles of prison guards and prisoners, from their psychological characteristics.

From the ethical and psychological points of view, this is the case: the experimenter (a man with unknown psychological characteristics) actively participated in the experiment, organized and commanded by the members of the experiment. This variable was not controlled, because the experimenter did not pass a psychological test unlike the subjects of the experiment. If we formally assume that the experimenter is a sadist and a psychopath, who has a talent of a leader and, thus, able to influence other people, the experiment suggests what ordinary people can do if they have fallen under this influence, but not the way people act within the mere distribution of roles.

In Zimbardo`s experiment, the treatment of the “prisoners” was such that it came to seizures. In fact, it was no longer about just mental tortures. Could seizures and sobbing of a person justify the value of the results obtained in the experiment? In general, one should make the following question: is it ethically correct to fully reproduce everything going on in a concentration camp in order to conduct a more detailed and extra-valued (from a scientific point of view) experiment to study people`s behavior? The answer is obvious – no. However, Zimbardo moved in this very direction. People have experienced real long and severe pain and suffering in his experiment. Thus, no knowledge can be justified if it has caused human suffering.

As a general rule, a police officer should introduce him-/herself and his/her police unit before the arrest procedure. A police officer may ask questions about behavior of a person or his/her presence in a particular place, in order to remove or, on the contrary, to confirm the suspicions. Moreover, a law enforcement officer, while on duty, is entitled to ask questions and even ask permission to inspect a person`s personal belongings. Such a situation may make people feel confused even if they are totally confident of their innocence. This takes into account the understanding of the situation by a citizen: a law-abiding citizen participant in a consensual encounter has the right to ignore the questions of a police officer and to leave or to decline to act in the manner requested by the authorities.

A police officer may talk to a person in appropriate circumstances and in appropriate manner in order to clarify the circumstances of possible criminal activity, and even, if there are no sufficient grounds for arrest, to make the necessary inspection of a person or a group of persons. Due to the fact that in the United States it is allowed to freely carry weapons, a good reason to stop and search a person suspected in committing a criminal act is to ensure the personal safety of the police and other citizens. This situation could make someone feel afraid and confused because police officers are guided by the completely different principles in practice: a police officer puts a suspect’s hands behind his/her back, invades his/he personal space, and speaks very loudly, sometimes even yells. The duration of such inspection is not determined. A person may be under arrest for an unlimited amount of time until a police officer will be able to establish a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Thus, a suspect can be deprived of freedom of movement during the arrest for an unlimited amount of time, and this is the main thing that can dehumanize a person.

The unexpected results described in the experiment can be explained by the following factors. The authors argue that the subjects have experienced difficulties when they tried to distinguish reality from the role-playing. On this basis, Zimbardo concluded the cause of the situation itself was the confusion felt by the subjects. Of course, this conclusion is true, but this situation was planned in advance by the leaders of the experiment. At first, the “prisoners” were baffled and confused. They were absolutely not ready to stay in such abject and dehumanizing conditions. Another important factor contributing to the confusion was the involvement of the police. Since the police authorities extremely rarely participate in experimental psychological games, it was extremely difficult for the “prisoners” to distinguish reality from a game. The report showed that they did not even know whether the arrest was connected with the experiment or not.

One should make the following question: Did the “prisoners” know in fact that it was only an experiment? The answer depends on what should be understood by the word “know” and what impact the arrest situation had on the minds of the subjects, when everything was so obfuscated that one could easily forget who is who and what is what. Zimbardo did not give a clear explanation of how he explained the conditions of the release from the prison to the participants of the experiment. There was no evidence that they had been warned of their right to withdraw from the experiment if it became unbearable to them. They probably had the impression that they needed a permission from a special committee to be released; that is why they tried to work within the arbitrary prison system.

Identity is a sustainable system of social features that characterize an individual as a member of society. I see my self-identity in the same way others define me. I personally believe that it would not be difficult to convert any person (including me) into someone with a new identity. This can be proved with a few statements. Firstly, humans are equipped with a strong adaptive capacity and the ability to change, adapting to the conditions of the surrounding reality. It makes a person flexible and allows him/her to change either under external influence or managing a conscious effort of will. Secondly, there are many examples of how people have changed for the worse or for the better.

The most obvious example is persons, who had suffered from a shipwreck and got on a desert island, persons in solitary confinement and all those who isolate themselves from society or are isolated forcibly by society for a long period of time. After a certain period of time, such people lose fluency. Ultimately, they generally lose their ability to speak. In addition, they get used to their new position and become morbidly sensitive and intolerant towards relations established in a civilized human society. Civilized customs, manners and tastes disappear in such people. They cease to take care of personal hygiene and are intolerant or unresponsive to the traditional way of life. Their interests and perspectives are narrowing; the whole mental world is shrinking and changing. If these changes do not come too far and do not last too long, such people can gradually return to the previous state if they found themselves again in normal human relationships. However, the fact remains: transformation of any person into someone with new identity is just a matter of time and severity of conditions such a person finds him-/herself in.

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If I were the experimenter in charge, I would not have done this experiment because it has many serious drawbacks. In addition to the lack of accuracy and critical self-assessment, this experiment has another drawback: the results have not been cross-checked in the atmosphere of a real prison. The thesis of the experiment states that a situation itself can turn a normal person into a miserable and insignificant creature or a ruthless sadist in just a few days. However, are the majority of prisoners in the worst U.S. prisons are in slave-like conditions, and are the majority of guards brutal sadists? The authors provide just one testimony of a former prisoner and a prison chaplain, while the evidence for such an important thesis needs a series of tests. Perhaps, Zimbardo should have done a systematic survey of many former prisoners and he should have provided accurate data on the percentage of ordinary prisons and prisons known for their humiliating conditions, the environment of which the authors wanted to reproduce. Instead, the experimenter just provides general arguments about the “prisons”. The authors did not bother to double-check their findings and compare them to the real-life situations. This is the most serious drawback of the experiment and one of the reasons I would not have done this experiment. Needless to say, I would not have conducted a follow-up study or any other study that presumes human suffering and has no scientific value.