Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Ordinary Cruelty

Reflections on the Stanford Prison Experiment movie (Sundance 2015)

Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons

It gets more and more simplistic: Good and Bad, evil and bad; what else do we know? Flavors that keep us from caring too long.
- John Ashbery, “Posture of Unease”

After the premier of The Stanford Prison Experiment this past week at Sundance, psychologist Philip Zimbardo remarked to moviegoers that, “All of us did bad things, including me.” Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez and based on Zimbardo’s 2007 book, the recent entry at the Sundance Film Festival was one of two films showcasing dark, unsettling experiments in the history of social psychology (the other being The Experimenter, about Stanley Milgram). The story of The Stanford Prison Experiment takes place in the summer of 1971 in vacant Logan Hall on the Stanford campus. In response to an ad which promised $15 a day, a couple dozen college students were assigned—by flip of a coin—to play either prison guards or inmates for a period of two weeks. The preference among these late 1960s, peace-loving nonconformists was to be an inmate (“Nobody likes guards!” said one of the subjects). What transpires next is well known and brutally documented in the film: the guards swiftly become almost intuitively sadistic—subjecting the prisoners to unimaginable forms of psychological humiliation and scorn. The humiliated—almost instinctively—assume their roles, obeying orders to carry out absurd physical feats and shameful schemes (such as cleaning toilets with their hands and feigning sex acts with one another). Zimbardo and his research team are themselves drawn into the masquerade, allowing conditions to quickly deteriorate. By day six (and with outside coaxing from a graduate student he was dating), Zimbardo abruptly ends the experiment.

The Stanford prison experiment pushes against cherished notions of good versus evil, and sides with the power of the situation as an unseen but potent force of nature. As in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, we see the toxic impact of bad systems in catalyzing pathological—indeed cruel—behavior. In the prison experiment, roles were deliberately enhanced by having the guards wear uniforms, carry batons, and hide behind dark aviators. The inmates wore smocks and little else, and went by their prison number instead of their name (enhancing a sense of de-individuation). Hiding behind their sunglasses, the guards could function with greater anonymity (presumed to lower moral inhibitions); wearing their shameful smocks, the inmates experienced humiliation.

In the experiment, as in life, we are lulled into viewing sadistic behavior as resulting from “bad apples”—bad people, evil doers, sociopaths. What we undervalue, however, is the role that situational and systemic forces play in shaping so-called personality. This underestimation of context and accompanying overvaluing of disposition—what social psychologists call the Fundamental Attribution Error—can be an unfashionable and unpopular storyline when it comes to explaining evil (one thinks of Hannah Arendt’s subtitle—banality of evil—from her book on Adolf Eichmann). We would rather locate evil as inhabiting individuals as opposed to inhering in systems. Evil is easier objectified than crowdsourced. Yet, as Nietzsche said, madness is a phenomenon rarely seen in individuals, “but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.” If the Stanford prison study had a moral, it would be some version of how good people can be enticed into behaving in evil ways.

Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons

Pushing back on the cartoon version of people as being either good or evil, Zimbardo sides with the view that all of us have the capacity for altruism and cruelty. In the psychoanalytic story of child development, a child’s first trauma is an awareness of his or her dependence on others, and this preoccupation evolves into an early but ultimately far-reaching repertoire of social behaviors. Among the many milestones achieved is the capacity to imaginatively identify with other people. Vulnerability gives way to identification (the child cares for the parent so the parent will care for the child). The roots of kindness and altruism lie in these early, imaginative experiences with other people. Conversely, our earliest inklings of cruelty stem from the inevitable powerlessness of childhood. Humiliating others becomes a solution to the problem of feeling humiliated. Cruelty as a failure of imagination.

What Zimbardo ultimately concludes, in his telling of the prison experiment, is that we can build resistance and resilience in the face of situational pressures. Though the institutions in which we are embedded can thwart our altruistic and heroic impulses, we can inoculate ourselves against such pressures. Zimbardo has his own “10-Step Program” as an antidote to resisting the impact of undesirable social influences. Among his recommendations is the straightforward admission, “I made a mistake!” Openly admitting an error reduces the need to justify or rationalize mistakes. Some of Zimbardo’s suggestions are more like values to teach and uphold, such as “Respect Just Authority, but Rebel against Unjust Authority.” Rather than teaching children to respect anyone in authority, we ought to help them distinguish between just and unjust authority figures. Who merits respect and who deserves criticism? Of course, teaching such a distinction does not preclude the development of good manners, politeness, and general social skills.

Empathy must also play a role in whether interactions become coercive or not. In his monumental study of the decline of human violence over the ages, Steven Pinker suggests that the expansion of literacy, mass production of books, and popularity of the novel all preceded the major humanitarian reforms of the 18th century. He put forth the hypothesis that fiction, in particular, serves as a kind of empathy technology. At the same time that Uncle Tom’s Cabin marshaled abolitionist attitudes in the United States, Dickens’ Oliver Twist was opening people’s eyes to the mistreatment of children in British orphanages and workhouses. Inhabiting the fictionalized characters of a book, one sees the world from multiple perspectives and can imagine a myriad solutions to complex problems.

Intriguingly, Zimbardo does not come across as a hero in the Stanford Prison Experiment, but as a bewildered schoolmaster. If there are heroes, they are the rebellious inmates No. 8612 and No. 819. Both fight the power, largely by resisting orders, and attempt to establish solidarity with their fellow prisoners. In a nod to Arendt, Zimbardo suggests that there is a banality of heroism. We are all heroes in waiting.

© 2015 Bruce C. Poulsen, All Rights Reserved

More from Psychology Today

More from Bruce Poulsen Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today