Stanford Prison Experiment – Fake or Real?
– A purely conjectural perception
The stage was set and the plot was established without any basis for setting it up the way they did it except for their own findings and without empirical evidence injected into the equation to set a stage properly equipped in all aspect of the desired environment. A stage that was meant to last longer than the fourteen (14) days of engagement and actually completed after only six (6) days of performing or acting out those roles designated to provide findings for the study and pass them on as being real and behaviorally factual in content. It is true, the study reached a critical point where termination was mandated. The study had spiraled out of control.
The tryouts was doomed to fail when the stage was left empty and the actors had blank scripts which were based on empty findings of prison conditions fabricated from theory and other means. No auditions, no real scripts and no authentic technical advisors prompted failure from the start. Even had the study run its full course, the defective materials captured or capsulated by these actors were going to be tainted as the well was poisoned to begin with by the lack of preparation and studies involved in the diversity of the environment.
Changes that would impact activities, behaviors, thought patterns, abuses and neglects. A domino effect that could hardly be captured in a mere two (2) weeks, when in fact, the average length of time an inmate serves is closer to one (1) in jail and at least a minimum of two and a half (2 ½) years under various penal confinement levels and custody circumstances.
No stage would be sufficiently produced, created or impact the environment without first taking into consideration how the stage is set and who is in control of the environment as well as the political will of groups that vary in color, age, race and ethnicities. Aggravated circumstances that would have included race, overcrowding, social injustices, staff abuses, organizational stigmas and disproportional administrative punishments, nature of offense conflicts with other inmates and of course the propensity of violence either on themselves or the guards portrayed by ill prepared actors / students.
How the stage is set, the mindsets of the actors or participants changes with each different level of energy infused, rejected or forced into a conflicting situation where tempers, emotions and other discerning forces can change the direction or flow or energy anticipated or desired by the professor or his cast. Mindsets which under real prison conditions can be altered by the possession or use of mind altering substances such as heroin, meth, marijuana, prescription drugs and other illicit controlled substances banned and considered contraband under most rules of voluminous prison settings considered to be a standard in the prison industry.
This study was about change. It was intended to document human behavioral changes created or evolved under different circumstances. This was a focal point on human beings having the ability to adapt or cope with adversity. In addition to those forces, it also brought to light the world of compliance and non-compliance, otherwise listed as obedience psychology.
Divided among two groups, prisoner and guard, the world was made essentially into a black and white situation that is unreal in any setting. How anyone can accept this as a legitimate study is beyond my personal comprehension levels thus I chose to write about this study for such reasons.
These inadequate obedience studies were created to show how people, ordinary people, prompted, provoked or stimulated by a trigger by an authority figure, were willing to exhibit defiance or compliance when told what to do and either chose to comply or suffer the “painful and potentially” lethal and non-lethal capabilities of a system designed to shock you into compliance.
Lethal being those guards who are armed with guns and other lethal weapons and non-lethal for those carrying mace or chemical agents, batons, or other impact weapons to gain compliance including their hands and feet. Changes which can underscore human responses that may fluctuate when a different approach is used. Approach is defined to be verbal or physical in nature with the invested authority or power by such a person to impose their will on others. Approach may be singular or plural depending on the situational assessment of the event or activity.
The logic or rationale is the enforcement of institutional rules and regulations but by all means, this could include many other directives or motives given for such a direct order to comply even with unlawful directives. Approach also means whether the presence of force is lethal or non-lethal or in other terms, intimidating or non-intimidating to the prisoners who are subject to these orders.
So far, based on changing the stage settings, the Stanford experiment did not underscore or take into consideration these extreme but common environmental triggers. If seemed to focus more in a theatrical aspect of how people, “regular’ people would act if “given too much power, could transform into ruthless oppressors.” A fact that is based more on a desired predetermined outcome than a reality of most situations where the interactions have more variables or possibilities than a “yes” or “no” in the conflict or confrontation. In fact, since it is the guard’s first prerogative to avoid conflict, such escalations rarely occur on a routine basis.
There appears to be some connection between this study and the documentation of the extremely aggravated circumstances of Abu Ghraib. One cannot and should not connect the two as a “norm” since there were behaviors on both sides that are questionable and documented in an already sterile and yet, on the side of a different world and culture, a more volatile and brutal environment which was not the case on the Stanford experiment, which had no such dynamic working inside its cultural settings or expectations.
Comparing the two would be speculative that they are both the same setting and therefore, the behaviors are consistent with the study and research provided forty-five years earlier. Such a fallacy is easy to find and should be taken into consideration when comparing apples with oranges. However, focusing on the behaviors of the guards at Abu Ghraib, it was indeed, a travesty of justice; the epitome of American penal abuse and punishment towards a prison population which numbered thousands and that was involved in a war of terror and internal political strife in a civil war. Hardly nine (9) individuals arrested for armed robbery and burglary if you see the differences here.
Focusing on the Stanford experiment, the professor, the director and the cast attempt to cite it as evidence of “atavistic impulses.” They chose to use primitive as a means to impose punishment because the study lacked the ability to provide the most recent and best practices used inside jails and prisons at that time. Another gap that impacts credibility but needless to say, the focus was on these negative impulses that created regular people into “r.”
The fact is, we can all become tyrants if the conditions permit themselves to nurture such an environment. It isn’t that hard to attain if you know how to be a bully or otherwise inconsiderate person to the other persons’ dignity, respect and rights. This is what puzzles me so often as to why the Stanford experiment was done in such a fashion.
What did it accomplish and did it just confirm what we already knew. People can be brutal and cruel if allowed to be or given the authority to act that way? Certainly, we can read the history books and have a sufficient lesson learned there to avoid spending our time role playing prisoner –guard relationships for six (6) days.
So I agree with the writer, Maria Konnikova, who wrote, “The study has been haunted by ambiguity. Even as it suggests that ordinary people harbor ugly potentialities, it also testifies to the way our circumstances shape our behavior. Was the study about our individual fallibility, or about broken institutions?”
An interesting question as it may be universally applied to several recent prison disturbances where such brutalities were disclosed and demonstrated how “broken institutions” can impact public safety or incite riotous behaviors because of environmental conditions unaddressed and out of control.
Applying the findings of the Stanford experiment would not solve one problem inside today’s jails or prisons because it lacks credibility and evidence that such results were documented under legitimate research condition and controlled provocations. There is too much room for error in judgements and conclusions to nail it down to a certainty we could rely on as a reference material and evidentiary in nature.
The appeal of the study conforms to the appeal for a reality show on television. Turning a show like this into a reality episode likened to the “Orange is the New Black” series might peak the interest of the audience chosen for such reality shows, but not likely those who work in the profession.
I disagree the Stanford Experiment was conducted in a “heavy manipulated environment.” It does not even get close or resemble the realities of the level of manipulation present in a real jail or prison and should not be presented that way. The appeal was the setup, the stage and the actions of the players. However, there was no real value here because the environment was so out of control (the opposite of manipulated) and the research was so impulsive that the theories could not be applied in a credible or evidence-based presentation.
Whether these players were actors, students, prisoners or guards is totally irrelevant. They all acted outside the normal scopes of people trained to do this job. Role playing is far from real. Even if the script was real, the actions, mindset, emotional and psychological aspects of such staged events differ from the real thing. One can see how the study spiraled out of control so quickly as in a real setting, there are cultural and administrative parameters that are followed either by political means or peer pressure.
If their goal was to provoke thought, to deliver a message of brutality or oppression under the duress of being a prisoner under the supervision of a guard, they failed miserably because the authority, the setting and the entire plot was bogus from the beginning and adds nothing but a theatrical atmosphere to a brutal reality of real-life jails and prisons.