A Jolt Into Reality

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In the Spring of 2007, I heard an interview on National Public Radio with Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who became famous as a result of the 1971 experiment he conducted known as the “Stanford Prison Experiment.” I had heard a few things about that experiment but never knew any of the details. Perhaps the increased interest came as a result of the obvious similarities between the experiment and the images of depravity in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison—of nakedness, bagged heads, and sexual humiliation. The interview motivated me to buy Dr. Zimbardo’s book, The Lucifer Effect, and read it. On July 18, 2015 Dr. Zimbardo was interviewed on MSNBC cable television regarding the movie that was released in July 2015 with the title The Stanford Prison Experiment. Dr. Zimbardo was one of those who wrote an endorsement for my book The Crescent Through The Eyes of the Cross.
 
There is an Addendum of nine additional chapters to my book The Crescent Through The Eyes of The Cross. I send the Addendum as an email attachment only to people who have read the book and want to learn more. This blog comes from Chapter 1 in the Addendum.
 
The Experiment

Zimbardo documented his famous experiment in his book, The Lucifer Effect. His website contains reviews of the book, including one written by Zimbardo himself in the Chronicle of Higher Education (March 30, 2007). The material below about the Stanford Prison Experiment is a summary from Zimbardo’s website.  
By 1970, psychologists had done a series of experiments that established the power of social groups. Groups of strangers were able to persuade people to believe statements that were obviously false. Participants in other experiments were willing to obey figures of authority even when it violated their beliefs and values. Zimbardo, a professor of psychology at Stanford University in California, was intrigued by how these experiments challenged the assumption that personality traits, morality, and religious upbringing directed people to upright living and kept them on the narrow path. He wondered why “good people” like Henry Kissinger and Robert McNamara would escalate the Vietnam War even though they knew it was not winnable. Zimbardo’s interest in this subject motivated him to conduct an experiment to find out who would win—good people or an evil situation—when brought into direct confrontation.
 
In 1971, Zimbardo and his assistants chose 24 male college students from about 100 applicants. The participants were physically and mentally healthy with no history of crime or violence. The Vietnam War was waging, and the U.S. draft was in place. College students, especially in that part of California, were against the war. All of the students selected, in Zimbardo’s terminology, were “good apples.” They were told they would be paid $15 a day and that the experiment would last two weeks.
 
The students were randomly assigned to play the role of “prisoners” or “guards” in an imprisonment setting in the basement of the psychology department at Stanford University. To make the experiment seem more real, the Palo Alto police agreed to “arrest” the “prisoners.” Once the prisoners were brought to the mock prison, they were ordered by the “guards” to strip naked. They were given large smocks with no underwear and nylon stockings to wear as caps. Their names were never used during the experiment; they were given numbers for identification. Each of the guards was referred to as “Mr. Correctional Officer” and wore reflecting sunglasses. There were three sets of guards. Each patrolled eight-hour shifts, the first being 2 a.m. to 10 a.m., the second 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and the third 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Zimbardo took the role of “superintendent” of the prison and was assisted by two graduate students.
 
The guards were asked to prevent the prisoners from escaping, but they were not to use physical violence. The guards on each shift were free to make up their own rules and were very “creative” in inventing a variety of tactics to demonstrate their power. Nakedness was a common punishment, along with chaining the legs of the prisoners, repeatedly working them during the night, and forcing them into humiliating activities. At 1 a.m. the prisoners were forced to line up and recite their ID numbers, along with the 17 rules invented by the guards. They were yelled at, cursed at, and made to say abusive things to each other, then sent to sleep. An hour later when the next shift came, the whole procedure was repeated. By the fifth day, five of the students were dismissed because of extreme stress. Those who remained were like doormats, totally obedient to the guards’ escalating demands.
 
An Encounter with Reality
 
The experiment was terminated on the sixth day rather than lasting 14 days as planned. During these six days, dozens of people visited the mock prison to watch the abuse and its effects, including psychologists, a chaplain, parents, and friends. None challenged Zimbardo to terminate the experiment. In contrast, Christina Maslach, an assistant professor at the University of California in Berkeley, was invited to join the experiment and conduct interviews with the staff and participants. Christina, a former doctoral student of Zimbardo’s, would later become his wife. When she came to the mock prison and saw the prisoners lined up with bags over their heads, their legs chained, and guards shouting abuses at them, she was shocked and very upset. She ran out of the basement, followed by the surprised Zimbardo. He did not have a clue why she was upset. She told him it was terrible what HE was doing to those boys. She said that if this heartless “superintendent of the Stanford prison” was the real Zimbardo, she wanted to break off their relationship.
 
All of a sudden, Zimbardo had a realization of the truth. Those prisoners were students. They were human beings who were suffering. They were not “experimental subjects” nor “paid volunteers.” He realized that he was personally responsible for the horrors she had witnessed, and that powerful jolt into reality snapped him back into his senses. He realized that he too had been transformed by his role.
 
Later, he realized that the main reason he did not end the study sooner was because of his conflicting dual roles. He was principal investigator—and thus guardian of the research ethics of the experiment—as well as prison superintendent, eager to maintain the stability of his prison at all costs. He realized that there should have been someone with authority over him, someone in charge of overseeing the experiment, who surely would have blown the whistle sooner. Zimbardo concluded from the experiment that decent moral humans, once they become a part of the “evil system” can be transformed into evil human beings who perceive themselves as the “good guys.” As good guys, they have the right to dehumanize others and treat them as animals, actually believing that pain is good for the “bad guys.”
 
Humans are vulnerable to subtle but powerful situational forces. Group pressures, authority symbols, dehumanization of others, imposed anonymity and dominant ideologies enable the ends to justify the immoral means. The message of Zimbardo’s book is that when evil at a large scale was committed, it did not come from a few “bad apples.” Instead, it came from a “bad barrel,” which was the evil system. I highly recommend Dr. Zimbardo’s book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.
 
The Lure of Power

In his book, Zimbardo does not tackle the subject of evil from a biblical perspective of mankind’s dignity and depravity. His worldview comes from social psychology and is based on a few assumptions stated in his book:

  • “The world is filled with both good and evil—was, is, and will be.

  • The barrier between good and evil is permeable and nebulous.

  • A set of dynamic psychological processes can induce good people to do evil, among them de-individuation, obedience to authority, passivity in the face of threats, self justification, and rationalization.

  • Dehumanization is like a cataract that clouds one’s thinking and fosters the perception that other people are less human . . . enemies, deserving of torment, torture and annihilation.

  • It is possible for ‘angels’ to become ‘devils’ and, perhaps more difficult to conceive, for ‘devils’ to become ‘angels.’ ”                                                                                                                           

From the Bible, we know about original sin and mankind’s depravity. The Bible does not shy away from showing evil—not only the evil of nations, but also the evil of the people of God. We also know from the Bible about the transformation that can take place as a result of the Holy Spirit dwelling in the life of a human being. It would have been interesting if some of the subjects in Zimbardo’s experiment were known to be born again, Spirit-filled students. Would they have been able to resist the evil system, whether they were guards or prisoners? Could “good apples” transform a “bad barrel,” thus making it a “good barrel”?  An interesting book that addressed some of Zimbardo's questions from the Scriptures is written by Gregory Boyd,The Myth of a Christian Nation

The Bible shows clearly that the sin of being inflated with power has very dangerous consequences. It was the cause of Lucifer’s fall. Our human history started with Adam wanting to be like God. The story of the lure for power, becoming inflated with power, and abusing that power continued throughout history and will continue until we stand on the Day of Judgment before the throne of God. The Bible illustrates how those who become inflated with power abused it.

Questions for Reflection

1. During the first six days of the Experiment, dozens of people visited the mock prison to watch the abuse and its effects, including psychologists, a chaplain, parents, and friends. None challenged Zimbardo to terminate the experiment. Why? Were they sucked into the evil system?

2. Zimbardo concluded from the experiment that decent moral humans, once they become a part of the “evil system” can be transformed into evil human beings who perceive themselves as the “good guys.” As good guys, they have the right to dehumanize others and treat them as animals, actually believing that pain is good for the “bad guys.” What can we learn from this conclusion about what is happening in our world today? What nations in the world would fit into this discription?

3. What can be done to help us grow and become open to learn and not be threatened by whistle blowers? What can be done to protect whistle blowers from getting abused by those in authority?

4. Why didn’t German Christians speak out against the evil structure of power and the system that Hitler created before the Second World War? (Of course, Dietrich Bonheoffer is one big exception.)

5. Old Testament kings had the “safety valve” of the prophets who dared to speak truth to power. What spiritual safety valves do we have today? Dr. Zimbardo played two conflicting dual roles in the Stanford Prison Experiment. He wasprincipal investigatorand at the same time he was theprison superintendent. He experienced a jolt into reality when his fiancée spoke truth and challenged him. In the year before the 2003 Iraq war, were there "prophets" who dared to speak truth to power? Who were they? I know of one (Leighton Ford) who wrote a very important open letter and spoke truth to power when it was not popular to do so. If you would like to read it, let me know.

6. Can you think of illustrations of evil systems that turn normal people into “doormats” who do not dare to challenge the evil that exists within the system? How many illustrations can you come up with? (One illustration was the clerical sex abuse scandal in the U.S. Catholic church in the past.)

7. What can leaders in our governments / civil / church leaders learn from Dr. Zimbardo's mistake when he played the two conflicting dual roles of being theprincipal investigatorin the Stanford Prison Experiment and at the same time theprison superintendant?

Dr. Nabeel Jabbour