Stanford Prison Experiment – Fake or Real?
– A purely conjectural perception
There is a lot of excitement going around on this movie inspired by what I believe to be a grossly misaligned or misconstrued research study when comparing its contents with today’s facts as they have evolved since the experiment was conducted. Certainly not an expert in the field of psychology, my main objection to this perception it is real is based on my twenty five (25) years of experience inside our jails and systems in the Southwest, specifically New Mexico and Arizona, who are culturally different from those east of the Mississippi River and similar to the California penal system with qualified exceptions in some areas.
Certainly, in my opinion, if the research team had taken the time to organize their facts a little bit better, the study would have acquired or attained a higher level of credibility rather than the mediocre level of attention it is receiving now because of the current media craze on our prison systems and its flaws. From my own personal expectations, it is with regret that this study fell short or authenticity as it would have and could have been a valuable tool in training and psychological awareness of our penal world as it existed then and now.
The entire lesson plan or script, whichever applies best, was based on the team participants or the professor’s own vision, cultural and political awareness or educational guesses, how prisoners are treated or mistreated by what he refers to as prison guards in charge of the supervision and management of a real prison setting. One must be cautious in translating such roles without the validity or evidence based procedures or conditions and thus any embossment of such dynamics, are either invalidated or false in actions and reactions.
In other words, it lacked the core values based on evidence gathered by various psychological profiles that impact the manner prisoners are evaluated and perceived by real guards or prison / jail administrators. You can’t pretend to engage in a role model behavioral unless you receive the same pre-existing conditions real trained guards receive during their tour of duty. This is based on the theory of approach determines response in human behaviors.
The Genesis –
The Real Lesson of the Stanford Prison Experiment nine (9) individuals who were staged to be arrested, booked, processed and imprisoned in a most orchestrated manner that rarely resembles reality in the manner it is done by those trained to do so. It lacked innovative and creativity from the start.
First, to begin with, this study is encapsulated with nine volunteers willing to subject themselves to the rigors of the mindgames played under the pretense of incarceration. This is the first key to the reality, nobody volunteers to go to jail or prison. At least no one in their right state of mind. Since the mind was at the core of this study, these actors should have been casted on the more “unwilling” side of the spectrum than volunteering for these roles. Making it mandatory would have imposed more anxiety and stress into the relationships and occurrences as they were planned or scripted to happen.
Second, the stage is bare and sterile. These players had no concept of the reality involved in running or managing a prison environment and did so on notions produced and projected for the sake of the outcome of the study, not reality or other variable that could have altered the outcome it the stage had been set right. Missing are the physical elements that makes jails and prisons despairing and filthy places to live or do time. These conditions play an important role on behaviors as it produces side effects of frustration, contaminated and communicable threats such as Hepatitis and often produces the negative subtleties that trigger negative responses to negative demands by those guards.
All nine actors were “arrested” on armed robbery and burglary charges. This taints the project from the beginning as these similar charges draw analogous inferences or cultural biases that do not cover the entire continuum of partialities if they had been charged with variable offenses such as murder, rape, aggravated assault, kidnapping, sexual molestations etc. these offenses all carry with them institutional prejudices that impact supervision and management levels for those in charge to manage them. If one is to conduct a real study, then the participants should also cover the continuum of offenders incarcerated.
Prison is a melting pot of criminals. They are all incarcerated, all dressed the same and all taken care of in a similar manner but they all carry special needs towards effective supervision and communication skills to maintain a safe and orderly environment. In other words, compliance has to be attained using various effective forms of managing behaviors but has to take into consideration their willingness to comply or refuse verbal orders given by authority figures.
Conducting this experiment is an honorable and worthy event. I can’t deny the fact, it does serve a legitimate purpose in our study of human behaviors and our prison world cultural phenomena as they really exist. However, conducting this on a stage that is sterile in the usual biases, the usual influences and the grossly horrific negativities that such a dismal and ghastly place projects, does little justice to the reality of the study.
Had the professor, Philip George Zimbardo, a psychologist and a professor emeritus at Stanford University, done a little bit more of mental and physical preparation to set the stage accordingly, it could have reached epic proportions of credibility for others to benefit from. However, he overlooked the basic principles of the core values implemented in any correctional setting and failed to impose them at the right moments or places of this study to maximize the impact of how this treatment process could have been evolved and how revolution could have been created if it had done it with non-submissive actors.
It is a fact, all were prepared for the roles they were assigned to participate in this study. Quoting the words of a well versed writer, Maria Konnikova, a contributor to the New Yorker, the study consisted of “middle-class college students” who had previously answered a “questionnaire about their family backgrounds, physical- and mental-health histories, and social behavior, and had been deemed “normal.” Such a bold statement of finding nine (9) willing students who were normal defeats the psychological benefits of evaluating those who are either normal, below normal or exceeding mentally impaired.
There is no such class of inmates who are “normal” as they all carry with them their own psychological profiles which in turn develops into established cultural expectation of behaviors by the guards who stereotype, draw personal biases and impose discipline accordingly to their own profiles or perceptions of each offender. All these undercurrents work towards the compliance issues and is filled with pre-requisites on training and screening for being hired for such roles as prison guards.
Giving them no training voids their stereotyping based on cultural realities as they exist and draws on the imagination or pretention of motive rather than real-life situations inside our jails or prisons.
Artistic influences on hired prison guards differ from cultural influences of prison guards. This perception ranges from their own psychological profiles which is diverse and often include the educated and not so educated group of people selected for the job. Since this study was done back in the 1970’s with a remake in the millennium, these people projected to be guards, now evolved into correctional officers today, due to the evolution of their roles, training, experience prior to working as an officer e.g. college, military, blue collar or white collar occupations. This makes a major impact on treatment and supervisory methods used and performed for compliance of the rules. In other words, this changes the stage immensely and changes the outcome of respective behaviors or actions.
In this study, the selection between being a prisoner or a guard was based on a mere flip of the coin. A coin determined the roles played between what were perceived to be good guys versus bad guys. A real phenomena but rarely imitated or assimilated truthfully without some kind of preparation and study of real world dynamics. Facts play an important role here for the outcome – whether desired or not – it fabricates the dynamics of the stage.
Since the guards (actors) received no training, they began their ordeal of mistreatment and abuse based on their own myths and perceptions of what a prison guard does. A lore that has often been mislabeled and mischaracterized as Neanderthal in nature and accordingly, projected as guards with little training, education, instruction and how they imposed their personal will on those prisoners (actors) who were then humiliated and psychologically abused voluntarily and within a swift twenty four hours into the study’s start.
Putting this into perspective on today’s terms and realities, the evolution of corrections has rectified, satisfied and declared much of these earlier versions of brutalities and mindset changes to rest due to better judicial decisions since the 1970’s on constitutional rights, and prison living conditions of confinement that have been regulated and inserted into federal receiverships or consent decrees by the courts in various jurisdictions and authority bodies which regulate prison management.