Human Aggression and the Stanford Prison Experiments Essay

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Human Aggression and the Stanford Prison Experiments

Studies of human aggression tend toward myriad and often competing conclusions about that which drives us to behave ethically or unethically, about the forces that incline us toward altruism as opposed to those which incline us toward aggression, about the impulses to behave according to internal values and the pressures to bend to contextual authority. Perhaps few studies on the subject have penetrated the question with more troubling results than the Stanford Prison Experiment. Overseen by human psychology professor Phillip Zimbardo in 1971, the experiment would see Zimbardo assuming the role of Prison Warden, converting a basement space in an academic hall into a prison and casting young college students as prisoners and guards. The resulting events are nothing short of revelatory, illustrating a tendency for both prisoners and guards, and even Zimbardo himself, to be consumed with the appointed experimental roles. It would not be long before the conditions created within the prison experiment began to reflect some of the primary characteristics of a real prison facility, with the roles assumed by the participants ultimately manifesting this reality.

In attempting to understand most particularly why prison guards so rapidly became willing to engage in acts of aggression toward prisoners, it is first appropriate to acknowledge the role played by situational forces. Zimbardo had created a context in which the authority of the prison guards was absolute. With no apparent oversight and no hope for intervention, prisoners were strictly at the mercy of the guards. Consequently, the guards committed to this vesting of authority, with the behaviors of one guard standing out in particular. Dave Eshelman, known by the prison inmates as John Wayne for his macho attitude and joyful brutality, became most notably corrupted by the opportunity for absolute authority. He used this condition to crush the spirits of the prisoners, to engage in truly creative ways of pushing their limits and to even drive some inmates to emotional trauma. Though even following the experiment, John Wayne would argue that it was his own personal interest to experiment with the limitations of the prisoners, it is also clear that his coalescence to this extremely aggressive persona suggested a voluntary willingness on the part of a normal individual to reflect the situational realities, even to intensify them, when given the authority to do so.

Our research suggests that in fact, individuals in many real-world contexts are predisposed to accept conflicting roles. Here, the prisoners and prison guards are arbitrarily assigned oppositional roles in a conflictive relationship. They are then thrust into a shared scenario with sharply defined hierarchical conditions. In a sense, our research shows, authoritarian cultural structures have the capacity to create conflict where there truly is none. For instance, Horowitz (1985) argues that ethnic conflict is actually an artifice manufactured by larger social constructs as a way of preventing public unity. Horowitz cites Marxist theory in reporting that ethnic conflict is often inflamed by institutional or governmental authorities as a way of keeping working and impoverished classes divided on false pretenses. The implication is that if united, the working classes would ultimately view their interests as shared and revolt against master classes. (Horowitz, p. 106) The instincts toward violence and division, Horowitz contends, have been impressed upon us by the economic and political mechanisms propping up authoritarian regimes. We are conditioned to accept the terms created for us by authoritarian sources, even as these conditions may differ from our humanitarian instincts, our personal ethical parameters and our respective senses of self. Prior to Zimbardo, this is perhaps demonstrated most troublingly in the studies conducted by social researchers such as Stanley Milgram. As with Zimbardo thereafter, Milgram's studies would become infamous for their disturbing outcomes.

The Milgram experiment in particular produces the conclusion that individuals will tend to act according to the whims of authority even when these whims call for ethically questionable or personally objectionable behavior. The electro-shock experiments demonstrated that participants, however reluctantly, were inclined to conform with the commands of experimenters presenting themselves as authorities. Smith (1992) finds that as to the question of whether individuals who are willing to engage aggression at the 'irrational' demand of authority are in some way living out an ingrained anger or need for violent outlet, Milgram found evidence to the contrary. Milgram believed that instead, this willingness to cause bodily harm to others at the behest of authority is as the result of ingrained power dynamics from which subjects see themselves as incapable of being released. To an extent, Smith suggests, there may even be a sense in the subject that he or she must work to please individuals presenting themselves as authorities. (Smith, 4)

In Milgram's experiments, subjects show a willingness to administer increasingly lethal currents of electricity to unseen test-takers, in the event of a wrong answer. An actor playing this role would profess to be in great pain and would even demand to be released from the experiment. A man in a white lab coat would urge on the participant to continue administering these shocks in spite of the unseen actor's apparent agony. The Milgram experiment would reveal that 2/3rds of all participants were willing to administer painful and even potentially deadly shocks to the unseen subject against their own personal beliefs and values because an individual professing to be an authority demanded it. Milgram would conclude that the illusion of authority can ultimately take on very real implications.

These conclusions are only further strengthened by the outcome of the Zimbardo experiments, which confirm that study subjects are willing to indulge in violent and even sadistic behavior when permitted or goaded to do so by authorities. The two experiments combined demonstrate a great deal about the myth of the violent human nature, instead illustrating that the impulse toward conflict and aggression is socially learned. Moreover, we find that this social education is quite intentionally fostered as a way of sustaining authoritarian cultures, societies and governments. For the participants in Zimbardo's experiment, the impression was quickly accepted that this had become a real prison. The late arrival of Prisoner 416 demonstrates the particular power of this impression with the newcomer entering into a context in which others had already been made to accept that this was indeed a real prison facility.

The roles that had been created by the hierarchy of authority and subjugation were solidified by the belief held amongst the prisoners that they could not leave the facility. Though this had never been explicitly stated by the guards or Zimbardo, beliefs circulated amongst prisoners that this was in fact a real prison. When Prisoner 416 arrived and saw the conditions there, he asked his fellow inmates what had transpired. They informed him that this was not an experiment, that this was a real prison run by the school rather than by the government. A cultural belief that the authority of the prison guards was real and impenetrable had snowballed into the idea that the participants were truly prisoners and had no means of preventing the treatment visited upon them by the appointed prison guards. The acceptance of the roles of aggressor and aggressed were almost total on both sides, suggesting a great deal about human nature when confronted with authoritarian ethical deviance.

More recent studies tend to confirm many of the realities concerning human nature, authority and aggression illuminated by Zimbardo's shocking experiment. In the ethnographic text Newjack: Guarding Sing, by Conover (2000), the journalist serves as a prison guard in the infamously violent facility. His work uncovers a great deal about the psychology of prison guards that suggests their environment is far more responsible for their behavior and roles assumed than individual personality traits or value systems. In a context where violence and an absence of civil ethical order are primary characteristics, the prison guard becomes a product of the world created around him and the authority vested in him. Conover argues that there is a danger in failing to consider the experience and psyche of the prison guard in the general discourse on our penal system and human nature. Historically, there has been a sense that the role of the prisoner and the prison guard are diametrically opposed, casting the latter in a directly conflictive role. In our course material, we have encountered this only partially outdated perspective.

Donald Clemmer, in particular, takes a perspective on the relationship between guard and inmate that is pointedly oppositional. The penal theorist perceived the cultural orientation of inmates as inherently intent upon noncooperation. Clemmer, Himleson indicates, would equate prisoner unity with resistance to the order imposed by guards. (Himelson, 1) To this end, Clemmer would identify the role of the prison guard as an isolated figure deep in enemy territory, essentially working to undermine the culture developed naturally by its inhabitants. This is an idea which in many ways contributes to the problematic perspective on the prison guard directly targeted by Conover's ethnographic study. Moreover, this view is directly…[continue]

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