How strong is your “sense of self?”

Stanford Prison Experiment

Just about one year after I returned from Vietnam, a psychological experiment took place at an elite facility of higher learning called Stanford University. This experiment quickly became world famous, because it amplified the conclusions of another psychological experiment that took place 10 years prior at another even more elite university, Yale. Both experiments were touted as demonstrating that “inherently good people can be led astray into participating in evil by sufficient authority over them.” Both experiments were flawed, and actually proved nothing, but made their creators famous and rich because their conclusions were so useful politically.

One of the most famous studies of obedience in psychology was carried out by Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University. He conducted an experiment focusing on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience. Milgram examined justifications for acts of genocide offered by those accused at the World War II, Nuremberg War Criminal trials, and wanted to investigate whether Germans were particularly obedient to authority figures, as this was a common explanation for the Nazi killings in World War II. Their defense often was based on “obedience”-that they were just following orders from their superiors.

The experiments began in July 1961, a year after the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. The procedure was that the participant was paired with another person and they drew lots to find out who would be the ‘learner’ and who would be the ‘teacher.’ The draw was fixed so that the participant was always the teacher, and the learner was one of Milgram’s confederates (pretending to be a real participant). The learner (a confederate called Mr. Wallace) was taken into a room and had electrodes attached to his arms, and the teacher and researcher went into a room next door that contained an electric shock generator and a row of switches marked from 15 volts (Slight Shock) to 375 volts (Danger: Severe Shock) to 450 volts (XXX). The “learner” (Mr. Wallace) was strapped to a chair with electrodes. After he had learned a list of word pairs given him to learn, the “teacher” tested him by naming a word and asking the learner to recall its partner/pair from a list of four possible choices. The teacher–the naive participant–was told to administer an electric shock every time the learner makes a mistake, increasing the level of shock each time. There were 30 switches on the shock generator marked from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger – severe shock). The learner gave mainly wrong answers (on purpose), and for each of these, the teacher gave him an electric shock. When the teacher refused to administer a shock, the experimenter was to give a series of orders/prods to ensure they continued. There were four prods and if one was not obeyed, then the experimenter (Mr. Williams) read out the next prod, and so on.

Prod 1: Please continue. Prod 2: The experiment requires you to continue. Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue. Prod 4: You have no other choice but to continue. What do you think the results were?

Milgram summed up in the article “The Perils of Obedience” writing: “The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous import, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.”

Ten years later, an even more famous experiment seemed to confirm Milgram’s conclusions. The Stanford prison experiment (SPE), by psychology prof Philip Zimbardo, took place in the basement of a building at Stanford University, in August of 1971. Essentially, 24 men judged to be the most physically and mentally stable, the most mature, and the least involved in antisocial behaviors were chosen to participate. The participants did not know each other prior to the study and were paid $15 per day to take part in the experiment. Participants were randomly assigned to either the role of prisoner or guard in a simulated prison environment. There were two reserves, and one dropped out, finally leaving ten prisoners and 11 guards.

Prisoners were treated like every other criminal, being arrested at their own homes, without warning, and taken to the local police station. They were fingerprinted, photographed and ‘booked.’ Then they were blindfolded and driven to the psychology department of Stanford University, where Zimbardo had the basement set out as a prison, with barred doors and windows, bare walls and small cells. Here the deindividuation process began. When the prisoners arrived at the prison they were stripped naked, deloused, had all their personal possessions removed and locked away, and were given prison clothes and bedding. They were issued a uniform, and referred to by their number only.

Lots of things happened, and after a brief rebellion near the beginning of the experiment, both “guards” and “prisoners” settled into their roles. As the prisoners became more dependent, the guards became more derisive towards them. They held the prisoners in contempt and let the prisoners know it. As the guards’ contempt for them grew, the prisoners became more submissive. As the prisoners became more submissive, the guards became more aggressive and assertive. They demanded ever greater obedience from the prisoners. The prisoners were dependent on the guards for everything so tried to find ways to please the guards, such as telling tales on fellow prisoners.

Milgram explained the behavior of his participants by suggesting that people have two states of behavior when they are in a social situation: 1-The autonomous state– people direct their own actions, and they take responsibility for the results of those actions. 2-The agentic state–people allow others to direct their actions and then pass off the responsibility for the consequences to the person giving the orders. In other words, they act as agents for another person’s will. Milgram suggested that two things must be in place for a person to enter the agentic state: 1- The person giving the orders is perceived as being qualified to direct other people’s behavior. That is, they are seen as legitimate. 2-The person being ordered about is able to believe that the authority will accept responsibility for what happens. Agency theory says that people will obey an authority when they believe that the authority will take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. This is supported by some aspects of Milgram’s evidence. For example, when participants were reminded that they had responsibility for their own actions, almost none of them were prepared to obey. In contrast, many participants who were refusing to go on did so if the experimenter said that he would take responsibility.

Writer Ben Blum explained why the SPE became so popular: “The Stanford prison experiment seems to go deeper than its scientific validity, perhaps because it tells us a story about ourselves that we desperately want to believe: that we, as individuals, cannot really be held accountable for the sometimes reprehensible things we do. As troubling as it might seem to accept Zimbardo’s fallen vision of human nature, it is also profoundly liberating. It means we’re off the hook. Our actions are determined by circumstance. Our fallibility is situational. Just as the Gospel promised to absolve us of our sins if we would only believe, the SPE offered a form of redemption tailor-made for a scientific era, and we embraced it.

The reason I started this post with a reference to my being in Vietnam was what I learned that was at odds with the conclusions of both experiments. Shortly before I was sent to Vietnam, the infamous My Lai massacre of unarmed civilians was the biggest news item. This was perpetrated by US soldiers, and provided ammunition to the antiwar movement’s claims that our soldiers were no better than the enemy. These two experiments might have provided hindsight excuses, or not. After reading about My Lai in 1969, I realized that I too could find myself in a situation that involved overwhelming peer and authority pressure to commit atrocities unless….

Yes, unless what? On my 23rd birthday, October 4, 1969, I resolved the following: “I decree to myself, that I will do nothing in Vietnam, no matter how much pressure is brought to bear, that will cause me to be ashamed, if I survive.” A few days later, I was on a plane to Vietnam. A few months later, I did find myself in a situation with strong peer pressure to murder someone outside of sanctioned combat (to put it delicately). My resolution saved me from doing the expedient thing and gave me the courage to do the right thing. More than anything else in my life, but one thing, that situation and my resolution and subsequent actions established my “sense of self.” The one thing that for me is even greater is my identity in Jesus Christ. I didn’t have that then; you may, or may not. If not, by what standard do you establish your sense of self?

Author: iamcurmudgeon

When I began this blog, I was a 70 year old man, with a young mind and a body trying to recover from a stroke, and my purpose for this whole blog thing is to provoke thinking, to ridicule reflex reaction, and provide a legacy to my children.

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