“If we don’t look into the other’s eyes and allow them to look into ours then one or other of us will soon become objectified and treated in a manner normally reserved for engaging with things rather than humans.”
Why bother trying to be ethical?
In February 1969, in the Bronx, New York City, a ten-year-old car had its number plates removed and its bonnet/hood left slightly open to make it look ‘abandoned’. An identical car was similarly abandoned in Palo Alto, California. In the course of forty-eight hours the Bronx Oldsmobile suffered no less than twenty-three separate destructive incidents, according Philip Zimbardo who was conducting twin social psychology experiments. The Palo Alto car, by comparison, had its hood closed by an elderly gentleman and three neighbours reported a theft to the police of an abandoned car when Zimbardo drove it away after two weeks. Among other things, Zimbardo concluded that Palo Alto was inhabited by people who have a good sense of community spirit, faith in the police, and a sense of fairness and trust. All positive social attributes that give an indication of an environment where ethical behaviour should thrive.
Zimbardo then conducted another social experiment in Palo Alto that would resonate throughout the world and become synonymous with the word evil.
The Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted from 14th – 20th of August 1971. It was supposed to have a longer duration, but it had to be aborted due to the extreme level of behaviour taking place within it.
After a lengthy process of advertising, then assessing and screening one hundred candidates, who all volunteered to take part in a paid study of prison life, were whittled down by Zimbardo to twenty-four suitable participants. Most were Stanford University students or students in the area attending summer schools at Stanford or Berkeley, or Palo Alto residents. Zimbardo and his team wanted young men who appeared normal, healthy and psychologically average. They didn’t want usual prison types or anyone with obvious social or psychological problems or issues: ‘bad seeds’ were screened out. Essentially, bright, healthy, and perceived normal young men studying in a decent area of the county were chosen.
Of the twenty-four participants, twelve were assigned to be ‘guards’ by the simple act of tossing a coin to see whether each person would be a ‘guard’ or a ‘prisoner’. The reasoning being that there could be no bias as to choosing who the ‘guards’ would be by Zimbardo and his graduate students assistants. Once the list of ‘guards’ was established, they were all brought in to receive a day’s brief orientation. There wasn’t time within the budget to give any training per se, so they were given two specific instructions only: practice no violence against any of the ‘prisoners’ and allow no escapes. Zimbardo also conveyed that he wanted the mock prison to create a sense of powerless in the ‘prisoners’.
The ‘guards’ were then instructed to carry out ‘arrests’ of the other twelve participants as they went about their daily lives in Palo Alto and to make it as authentic as possible, but on a pre-agreed date when the volunteers were told to make themselves available for the experiment they had signed up to. So, with all the ‘guards’ complete with uniforms purchased at the local Army surplus store the ‘arrests’ took place and each ‘prisoner’ was brought to specially converted basement of Stanford’s Psychology department that would function as the jail. One of the key components of the ‘guards’ uniform was the then popular police custom of wearing mirrored sunglasses that prevents anyone from seeing their eyes. Zimbardo saw these reflective glasses as part of the process of creating what he termed deindividuation: a social psychological concept whereby the individual losses self-awareness in group situations. In this instance the ‘guard’ becomes the role they are assigned rather than being themselves, an autonomous human individual with their own personality and behavioural characteristics.
Once the ‘arrests’ were made the jail-time proper could commence. Each ‘prisoner’ was blindfolded and stripped naked in preparation for being sprayed with a delousing powder. From that moment, the ‘guards’ spontaneously started to ridicule the ‘prisoners’. The ‘prisoner’s’ uniforms were then handed out, a smock dress with numbers on the front and back and nylon stocking caps to cover and contain long hair, as a substitute for head shaving, but equally aimed at removing individuality, just as the numbers on the uniform would prove to do. No underwear was allowed and chain shackles were permanently attached to the ‘prisoner’s’ legs. At this point, the blindfolds were removed and the ‘prisoners’ paraded in front of full length mirrors so that they could see themselves: the humiliation had begun.
Rules were then read out to the ‘prisoners’ and they were told to address the guards as ‘Mr Correctional Officer’. When laughing and giggling broke out amongst the ‘prisoners’ a new rule was immediately introduced and implemented: no laughing. The rules were worked out by a ‘guard’ participant assigned the more precise role of warden on the day of orientation. There were seventeen rules dealing with silence, number not name use, obeying orders, receiving smoking and mail privileges etc. The final rule, though, enabled a potential contravention of one of the two specific orientation day’s instruction and was ‘failure to obey any of the above rules may result in punishment’.
During the first evening the ‘guards’ on duty got the ‘prisoners’ to perform a count of their newly assigned numbers going from left to right along the line of twelve. One of the ‘prisoners’ laughed and a ‘guard’ pushed him back against the wall with his ‘billy club’ (truncheon/baton) and angrily shouted “No laughing”1. The scene then escalated with the ‘guards’ making the ‘prisoners’ perform jumping jacks and/or press-ups arbitrarily if they deemed a ‘prisoner’ to count off their number incorrectly by. On this, the first night, the ‘guards’ began to take pleasure in forcing their whims on the ‘prisoners’.
In the middle of night, at 2.30pm, the new shift of ‘guards’ wake the ‘prisoners’ with loud shrieking whistles to perform the count, in what was swiftly becoming a control ritual to be implemented at any time. One of the new ‘guards’, when questioned after the end of the experiment stated that the reflective glasses made him feel safely authoritative. The next day the same ‘guard’ started pushing the shoulders back of those ‘prisoners’ he thought were not standing straight enough.
In the course of this first twenty-four hours the ‘prisoners’, in little conclaves, had started expressing anger to each other at how they were being treated and attempting to hatch plans to frustrate the ‘guards’. Clearly resentment was brewing and simmering on their side, just as some of the ‘guards’ were finding new ways to have ‘fun’.
A flash point quickly erupted, on the second day, when one ‘prisoner’ had his bedclothes thrown onto the floor by a ‘guard’ who said that the bed was a mess. The ‘prisoner’ lunged at the ‘guard’ screaming which caused the ‘guard’ to push the ‘prisoner’ off, and whilst punching him in the chest he called for reinforcements due to the ‘emergency’ in Cell 2. When the other ‘guards’ came they roughly captured the ‘prisoner’ and threw him into a smaller cell with another reprimanded ‘prisoner’. As a result of another perceived infraction in another cell, the ‘guards’ took the sheets and blankets from the occupants outside and dragged them through dirt and hedges to cover them in thorns, dirt and other detritus.
Slightly later in that second day, some of the ‘prisoners’ decided to barricade themselves into their cell by turning their beds up against the door; they also called out to the other cells to do the same. To overcome this tactic, one of the ‘guards’ armed with carbon dioxide fire extinguishers aimed and released it at the offending ‘prisoners’ so that the ‘guards’ could force their way into the barricaded cell. One of the ‘prisoners’ who refuse to come out was handcuffed round his ankles, after being thrown to the ground, and then dragged by feet out into yard. Food is then withheld from the ‘prisoners’ at lunchtime and later that day the night shift ‘guards’ are asked to come in early to help the day shift storm one of the cells, remove the beds, strip the ‘prisoners’ naked and threaten to withhold the evening meal as well.
By the fourth day the ‘guards’ were well into their routine of punishment, but as one of them dished out the now standard slow press-ups to one of the ‘prisoners’ he even went so far as to put his foot in-between the ‘prisoner’s’ shoulder blades and stepped hard on the down cycle of the press-up. At this point, Zimbardo noted he had seen drawings of the guards at Auschwitz performing the same thing.
The Stanford Prison Experiment continued for another two days in similar vein with humiliation, deprivation of food and sleep, and physical punishments becoming the norm before Zimbardo and his colleagues drawing everything to a close. Maybe one final image to dwell upon is when four well behaved prisoners were taken to their ‘parole hearing’ they had their feet shackled to one another in a long line and bags placed over their heads to complete the dehumanising process.
Zimbardo debriefed each participant thoroughly and obviously analysed intently the findings of the experiment, just as Stanley Milgram did with his electric shock experiments, drawing his conclusions from a social psychology point of view, but perhaps more relevant to us are the ones he drew as a human being: ‘In just a few days and nights the virtual paradise that is Palo Alto, California, Stanford University became a hellhole. Healthy young men developed pathological symptoms that reflected the extreme stress, frustration, and hopelessness they were experiencing as prisoners. Their counterparts, randomly assigned to the role of guards, repeatedly crossed the line from frivolously playing that role to seriously abusing ‘their prisoners’.
To some it might be obvious, but let’s lay it out. The Stanford Prison Experiment marks a post-holocaust moment in time whereby unthinkable acts of dehumanisation were let loose almost within a few short hours from people one would think were perfectly decent human beings. Now, Zimbardo, after a long period of reflection, described the ‘system’ that he and his assistants imposed, as the trigger or catalyst that enabled ‘good’ people to perform ‘evil’ acts. While this is a perfectly valid conclusion I would like to focus upon a different aspect to what he witnessed.
One of the crucial elements in the Stanford Prison Experiment was the way that the ‘prisoners’ had their individuality, and thereby humanity, effectively removed piece by piece to cause a complete breach of ethical behaviour. Replacing their names with numbers is an obvious example of this process of dehumanisation. However, even the wearing of mirrored sunglasses by the ‘guards’, which prevented eye contact between two individuals, is also such a breach because if we don’t look into the other’s eyes and allow them to look into ours then one or other of us starts to be objectified and treated in a manner normally reserved for engaging with things and not humans. Withholding food and physically causing the other person violence doesn’t need explaining in conjunction with the loss of ethics, if we take them at their easily identifiable prima facie value: they just are brutal behavioural traits and not within anyone’s scope of ethics. However, what I’m interested in is how those behavioural traits came into being in a place where Zimbardo especially tried to screen out individuals with unethical/anti-social tendencies.
Zimbardo described the ‘system’ as that which caused ‘evil’ to surface, but it is in the elements that made up the ‘system’ where we can see signs of just what is important to ethical behaviour.
- It is in the genuine eye contact between individuals.
- It is in the respect that each person ought to show for the other as another human being.
- And, it is in the allowing of the other person to show their individuality and be different to any perceived image or caricature that someone else has of them.
Giving genuine eye conduct, respect, and not casting others in our own image, though, is not easy. But understanding such requirements is a step forward, is it not? Or, would we want to find ourselves, possibly only metaphorically, with our foot between someone else’s shoulder blades because we have lost touch with what it means to be ethical? Because we are decent ‘normal’ people, too, right? … Just like those Zimbardo recruited and selected into his little prison experiment…
- Zimbardo, P., The Lucifer Effect, 49.