I’ve always believed that part of the problem with the United States is our collective mythic structure is based on the notion of a man standing alone against the elements, the environment, and his fellow man. Even as legitimate science has shown us the everything that makes us unique as human beings evolved to foster cooperation, we are still drunk on the notion that somehow the individual only finds freedom, meaning, and purpose when he is unbound from the shackles of the dreaded “group.”
This great lie has made us vulnerable to the despotism of the elite and moneyed class. And so much of it is predicated on the Hobbesian notion that man’s inner nature is one of savage cruelty — that who we all are are inside is something terrible.
The Stanford Prison Experiment is often held up as proof that if simply given the means and opportunity, not only we will immediately be cruel to one another, but that cruelty is not even our fault.
If you’re unfamiliar with the experiment, here’s a quick rundown:
- A basement of one of the buildings on campus was turned into a mock prison.
- Paid volunteers were divided into two groups: prisoners and guards.
- Without provocation, the “guards” fell into the role of gleeful abusers.
- The “prisoners” cracked under pressure and begin to act crazy.
- The experiment was scheduled to run two weeks, but had to be called off after only one.
Despite a few questioning the legitimacy of its science from the beginning, it remains one of the most famous psychological experiments of the modern age. It’s taught in universities. It’s found in psychology textbooks. It’s been the subject of movies and television programs. Dr. Philip Zimbardo, the man behind the experiment, has built his entire career on it – going on to publish numbers books, host television programs on psychology, travel the well-paid lecture circuit, and even testify before Congress during the investigation into prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.
“The rebellion was fun. There were no repercussions. We knew [the guards] couldn’t hurt us, they couldn’t hit us. They were white college kids just like us, so it was a very safe situation. It was just a job. If you listen to the tape, you can hear it in my voice: I have a great job. I get to yell and scream and act all hysterical. I get to act like a prisoner. I was being a good employee. It was a great time.”
Zimbardo sought out publicity for his experiment ahead of time. He coaxed the prisoner volunteers to be uncooperative and act crazy. He instructed the guard volunteers on how to behave. Most of the participates considered the entire thing to be a kind of improv exercise and not a legitimate experiment. And things didn’t truly get out of hand until Zimbardo refused to let volunteers leave.