Monday, March 19, 2012

The Midtermining

(Alternate Title: "A Journey Into the Hypothetical")

Explain the basic procedures of the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment and how the concept of "the power of roles" can be applied to the eventual findings.

The first step in the Stanford Prison Experiment was to collect a group of stable, normal, healthy college age males to serve as test subjects. They were interviewed and chosen at random from a select group (all the while receiving very little information about the experiment itself) to fill the role of either "prisoner" or "guard." This was to ensure that any findings could not result solely on pre-existing mental problems. The experimenters took great care to replicate the experience of being in prison: they crafted cells and smock uniforms, as well as recruited actual law enforcement officials to perform mock-arrests that marked the beginning of the experiment.

In the "prison" (which was actually a repurposed collection of small rooms in the basement of a building at Stanford), the guards wore dark mirrored sunglasses and carried nightsticks. The mirrored sunglasses obscured the individual's eyes, thus removing a small degree of human empathy. They were briefed before the experiment and told that they could do anything they pleased to maintain order in the prison.

The prisoners were also issued articles to  characterize their new roles: the aforementioned uniform smocks, stocking caps to symbolize prison-issue shaved heads, and chains around their ankles that did nothing but serve as a physical reminder that they were indeed locked up.

Initially, the prisoners and guards were tentative about their positions. Guards carried out protocol with an air of confused flippancy, and the prisoners awkwardly obeyed. However, some rather disturbing things surfaced as the prisoners and guards got more "into" their roles. The prisoners rebelled and the guards did everything short of beating them to a pulp to keep the order. The guards grew almost sadistic in their efforts, turning the prisoners against each other and punishing them in creatively cruel ways.

The symbolic roles enforced on the individuals in question- who, as we recall, entered the experiment as healthy and altogether similar neurotypical males- brought out traits and behaviors previously unseen and perhaps unknown. The prisoners became submissive and guilty, believing that they truly deserved to be punished, completely ignoring the fact that they were indeed innocent and that this was an experiment. The guards, on the other hand, took on their roles with such gusto that a cruel dominance surfaced. They truly believed themselves to be superior to the lowly prisoners under their supervision. "Nice guys" grew into sadistic monsters who exerted their authority at every opportunity. The tensions in the prison became so high and conditions so inhumane that the experiment was cut short in concern for the subjects' safety.

The 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment is considered controversial and shocking for a number of reasons, one of which is perhaps what it reveals about people on the whole. If given excessive power or forced to submit, one never knows what somebody might do.

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