Maybe the devil made me do it

Empathy vs. cruelty: evaluating Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, intended to assess the psychological implications of institutional systems within criminal imprisonment

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Some time in the early 1970s, psychologist Philip Zimbardo advertised in a California newspaper asking for volunteers to participate in a study of “prison life.”


The volunteers were paid $15 per day for the duration of the research — supposedly two weeks.

They were randomly assigned roles as either “prison guards” or as “prisoners.”

After being refused the use of the municipal jail, a mock prison was built out of Stanford University facilities. Real police officers did, however, consent to “arrest” the prisoner volunteers as they were found in their homes.

Researcher Zimbardo acted as head experimenter as well as the quasi-official “prison superintendent.”

Whereas it was designed to last two weeks, it became obvious the research was going seriously awry. The prisoners, deprived of sleep, began to exhibit symptoms of disorientation, dislocation and severe depression.

The guards engaged in acts of humiliation and further dehumanized the “prisoners” at every turn.

A mere five days into the study, Zimbardo’s future wife, psychologist Christina Maslach, was so appalled by the abuse she witnessed that she persuaded Zimbardo to abandon the research.

Zimbardo has now published a book called The Lucifer Effect, which is devoted to the shocking events of the Stanford Prison Experiment.

In the book, he calls on us to recall Stanley Milgram’s “obedience study” as well as other types of research, and concludes that situation/contextual factors, far more than a person’s character, explain why people behave so cruelly.

He then connects the dots for us in his detailed account of the abuses of United States personnel at Baghdad’s prison, where Zimbardo argues the torments and humiliations suffered by the prisoners were produced not by evil character traits, but rather by an evil system — much like that established in the Stanford Prison Experiment.

And yes, we do know some of us will behave in depraved ways when under pressure.

From personal experience, I know that the worst “detail” or duty military personnel can pull is guarding prisoners.

Zimbardo acted as an “expert witness” in defence of the officers overseeing the treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and argued we should “blame an evil system” — analyzing how situations are designed, and then criticize those individuals responsible for pressured-filled circumstances which may make us all “vulnerable.”

For Zimbardo, the sources of depraved behaviour come from outside the person without as much as a nod in the direction of what is inside all of us, our personalities and our characters.

For instance, we know fear and insecurity have been linked to aggressive behaviour.

And here, education must be called upon to provide us all with strategies to cope with uncertainty, moreover to assist us in understanding how compassion and cooperation can support us in our own intrinsic weaknesses.

For me, emotional maturity appears to be the key.

For the guards at Abu Ghraib and at Stanford University, what was lacking was the ability to see the other as human; they lacked empathy and its close relative, compassion.

Daniel Batson has done some research suggesting that compassion “is closely linked to the ability to follow the story of another’s plight with vivid imagination.”

It would appear there is an atrophy of the imagination — at least among some of us.

Failure of the imagination comes from not exercising one’s imagination, or having one’s imagination become stagnant from too many fully prepared TV dinners and everything done for us by someone else.

The imagination might well be like any muscle: it atrophies when not used.

Our hope lies in the fact that all of these human tendencies can be taught, or better yet, caught from others such as parents, teachers, government officials and yes, prison guards. Civilized humans can teach other humans to become civilized.

Our destinies lie not in circumstances or situations, but in our own powers to alter such circumstances so as to meet our expectations and enlarge our humanity.

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