Stanford Prison Experiment
It has been generally thought in the popular press that the Stanford Prison Experiment showed that normal people act like sadistic guards when placed in a ‘prison-like’ environment. In this interview with Guy Kawasaki, Dr. Philip Zimbardo discusses his 1971 prison experiment, where students played their roles as guards or prisoners and abuses started within 24 hours:
“But on the second morning, the prisoners rebelled; the guards crushed the rebellion and then instituted stern measures against these now ‘dangerous prisoners’. From then on, abuse, aggression, and eventually sadistic pleasure in degrading the prisoners became the daily norm. Within thirty-six hours the first prisoner had an emotional breakdown and had to be released, followed in kind by similar prisoner breakdowns on each of the next four days.”
Our Structures Shape Us
Authority may drive us to do immoral things. German researchers have released horrendous stories of what went on with regular soldiers during the Second World War. As der Spiegel notes: “Newly published conversations between German prisoners of war, secretly recorded by the Allies, reveal horrifying details of violence against civilians, rape and genocide”. But the societal/organizational structure seems to have been a primary factor, as stated in the concluding paragraph of the der Spiegel article.
“The morality that shapes the actions of people is not rooted in the people themselves, but in the structures that surround them. If they change, everything is basically possible — even absolute evil.”
We may think we will do the right and proper thing, but perhaps we are deluding ourselves. In this report from Science News we learn that moral talk is cheap:
“When faced with a thorny moral dilemma, what people say they would do and what people actually do are two very different things, a new study finds. In a hypothetical scenario, most people said they would never subject another person to a painful electric shock, just to make a little bit of money. But for people given a real-world choice, the sparks flew … But when there was cold, hard money involved, the data changed. A lot. A whopping 96 percent of people in the scanner chose to administer shocks for cash.”
The statement that ‘First we shape our structures, and then our structures shape us’, has been attributed to Winston Churchill. It shows that we become the product of our shaped environment. Father John Culkin, in A Schoolman’s Guide to Marshall McLuhan, wrote that, “We become what we behold.
We shape our tools
and then our tools shape us.” This aligns with the McLuhans’ tetradic Laws of Media. How we organize as a society is just another human-created technology, or as Harold Stolovitch wrote, “Technology is the application of organized and scientific knowledge to solve practical problems.” (more…)