The Lucifer Effect: Are We Evil?

2년 전


Source: Stanford Prison Experiment

"Homo homini lupus" ("Man is a wolf to man") says an ancient Latin motto, firstly attributed to the playwright Plauto and subsequently adopted by Niccolò Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes in their conception of human nature. Are we all potentially evil under certain environmental circumstances? Is this our nature, a selfish and predatory animal masked in civil appearances?
With all due respect to philosophy, I feel that investigating people's behaviour from a social and psychological perspective can give us a better insight about this strange animal called human, and in a more pragmatical way. Our behaviour is the expression of our nature, in the end.
During my academic studies, when writing my dissertation on the rights of prisoners, I came across two social experiments whose result are both shocking and revealing.
I think that understanding these experiments may be a good antidote for countering that "lupus" that lies in the shadow within everyone of us.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford prison experiment (SPE), was conducted at Stanford University in August 1971, by a research group led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo. The experiment used 24 college students, equally divided in "prisoners" and "guards" and each paid $15 per day (Approximately $90 in 2017) to participate in a 7-14 day period of stay in a prison-alike environment, settled purposely in the basement of the Stanford's psychology building.

The guards were dressed with uniforms and mirror sunglasses, carrying a whistle around their neck and even a billy club. They were also specifically instructed by Zimbardo, who held the role of "superintendent", a sort of prison's director, as follows:

You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can create a notion of arbitrariness that their life is totally controlled by us, by the system, you, me, and they'll have no privacy ... We're going to take away their individuality in various ways. In general what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness. That is, in this situation we'll have all the power and they'll have none.

After answering a local newspaper and expressing their will to participate in a generally described study on the psychological effects of prison life, the applicants whose been assigned with the prisoner's role were "arrested" at their homes by real city police collaborating with Zimbardo, blindfolded and taken to the simulated prison environment.

This is the description of the prisoner's introductory modalities to the experiment:

A degradation procedure was designed in part to humiliate prisoners and in part to be sure they weren't bringing in any germs to contaminate our jail. This procedure was similar to the scenes captured by Danny Lyons in these Texas prison photos.
The prisoner was then issued a uniform. The main part of this uniform was a dress, or smock, which each prisoner wore at all times with no underclothes. On the smock, in front and in back, was his prison ID number. On each prisoner's right ankle was a heavy chain, bolted on and worn at all times. Rubber sandals were the footwear, and each prisoner covered his hair with a stocking cap made from a woman's nylon stocking.

The experiment, whose details you can read here, narrates of an escalation of abuses and real tortures perpetrated by the guards to the prisoners. It was forced to be aborted after seven days from its beginning, due to the strong ethical and moral objections of Christina Maslach, a psychology student that was invited to observe the experiment and the future wife of Zimbardo.
Slowly during the experiment, the applicants lost their perception of individuals and fully embraced their role. This was applicable for Zimbardo too, who had to admit he had been "grossly absorbed", allowing psychological and physical violence to be performed under his supervision.
One third of the guards showed "genuine sadistic tendencies", and the prisoners have reported severe psychological traumas.

A clear demonstration of the depersonalization and deindividuation process, is given by the story of prisoner #819 (obviously, prisoners were called by their number and not with their name):

The only prisoner who did not want to speak to the priest was Prisoner #819, who was feeling sick, had refused to eat, and wanted to see a doctor rather than a priest. Eventually he was persuaded to come out of his cell and talk to the priest and superintendent so we could see what kind of a doctor he needed. While talking to us, he broke down and began to cry hysterically, just as had the other two boys we released earlier. I took the chain off his foot, the cap off his head, and told him to go and rest in a room that was adjacent to the prison yard. I said that I would get him some food and then take him to see a doctor.

While I was doing this, one of the guards lined up the other prisoners and had them chant aloud: "Prisoner #819 is a bad prisoner. Because of what Prisoner #819 did, my cell is a mess, Mr. Correctional Officer." They shouted this statement in unison a dozen times.
As soon as I realized that #819 could hear the chanting, I raced back to the room where I had left him, and what I found was a boy sobbing uncontrollably while in the background his fellow prisoners were yelling that he was a bad prisoner. No longer was the chanting disorganized and full of fun, as it had been on the first day. Now it was marked by utter conformity and compliance, as if a single voice was saying, "#819 is bad."

I suggested we leave, but he refused. Through his tears, he said he could not leave because the others had labelled him a bad prisoner. Even though he was feeling sick, he wanted to go back and prove he was not a bad prisoner.

At that point I said, "Listen, you are not #819. You are [his name], and my name is Dr. Zimbardo. I am a psychologist, not a prison superintendent, and this is not a real prison. This is just an experiment, and those are students, not prisoners, just like you. Let's go."

He stopped crying suddenly, looked up at me like a small child awakened from a nightmare, and replied, "Okay, let's go."

Notwithstanding its importance, this experiment came under heavy criticism and could never be repeated nowadays, due to stricter ethical protocols.

The Third Wave

die-welle.jpg
Source: "Die Welle" (movie, 2008)

"How is it possible that a whole nation blindly followed such an evil dictatorship, denying its horrible crimes?"

When thinking about the atrocities of the Nazi regime during the second world war, it's possible that we came to wonder and ask ourselves a similar question.
Perhaps, another thought crossing our mind could have been something like: "I would have been different, I would have joined the resistance, I would have never accepted such crimes against humanity without questioning".

We are different, we are better, we are more prepared. Are we so sure?

In 1967, Ron Jones, a high school history teacher, set an enlightening experiment with his unaware students, an experiment that they would have never forgotten.
It took place at Cubberley High School in Palo Alto, California, and aimed to give an answer to the incapability of the students to figure how German population could have claimed their ignorance about the Holocaust.

Ron Jones decided that the best answer was a demonstration through a social experiment: he created a movement, named "The Third Wave", similar to an exclusive club within the High School. The purpose of the movement was to eliminate democracy and its motto was "Strength through discipline, strength through community, strength through action, strength through pride".

Similarly to the Stanford Prison's one, this experiment soon started to show increasingly worrisome behaviours between the students and soon started to derail and get out of control. To give an idea of the almost contagious spreading of the experiment between the students, hereunder I reported an abstract taken from teacher Ron Jones' original short story, first published in 1976:

Monday - day 1

In speed drills the class learned to move from standing position to attention sitting in fifteen seconds. In focus drills I concentrated attention on the feet being parallel and flat, ankles locked, knees bent at ninety degree angles, hands flat and crossed against the back, spine straight, chin down, head forward. We did noise drills in which talking was allowed only to be shown as a detraction. Following minutes of progressive drill assignments the class could move from standing positions outside the room to attention sitting positions at their desks without making a sound. The maneuver took five seconds.
It was strange how quickly the students took to this uniform code of behaviour I began to wonder just how far they could be pushed. Was this display of obedience a momentary game we were all playing, or was it something else. Was the desire for discipline and uniformity a natural need? A societal instinct we hide within our franchise restaurants and T.V. programming.

Thursday - last day of the experiment:

On Thursday I began to draw the experiment to a conclusion. I was exhausted and worried. Many students were over the line. The Third Wave had become the centre of their existence. I was in pretty bad shape myself. I was now acting instinctively as a dictator. Oh I was benevolent. And I daily argued to myself on the benefits of the learning experience. By this, the fourth day of the experiment I was beginning to lose my own arguments. As I spent more time playing the role I had less time to remember its rational origins and purpose. I found myself sliding into the role even when it wasn't necessary.

The experiment lasted 4 days, even less than Zimbardo's one and was interrupted in order to avoid serious consequences. Note that, similarly to Zimbardo, who ended being deeply influenced by his own experiment, also teacher Ron Jones admitted in his report the fascination of his position of power and predominance over the students.

Conclusion

There's a common thread that links the two socio-psychological experiments above described: the vulnerability of the individual oppressed by an authoritarian control system and the speed of the social depersonalisation process, triggered by specific environmental circumstances. At the same time, the two experiments evidence the presence of a foreseeable pattern in human behaviour, represented by the transition from the natural (and positive) tendency of organising through collaboration to a powerful desire for conformity, which seems to be capable to prevail over the individual values and even over the self-perception as an individual. Such phenomenon seems to be triggered when the person is forced or, in general, surrounded by an authoritarian and well organized superstructure, whether this is a prison, a movement, a political party or a bureaucratic apparatus.

Perhaps, sometimes it's worth to invest more time in understanding our human nature, our innate brain mechanisms and social dynamics and, most of all, try to learn from History.
We may raise our antibodies and counter our instincts, but this requires a preliminary effort of knowledge and self-awareness. Only this way, through exercising our criticism, we will be able to recognise the next Leviathan who's going to menace our freedom.


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Excellent post. I find it interesting that in Western psychology, the ego is not given much importance, while in most Eastern spiritual/philosophical systems, the transcendence/control of the egoic complex is of paramount importance.

"At the same time, the two experiments evidence the presence of a foreseeable pattern in human behaviour, represented by a wish for conformity with the mass."

In my opinion, this pattern is part of the egoic construct. Because the ego sees itself separate from everyone and everything, it seeks agreement from other egos in order to validate its own worth and importance.

Being a part of a sports team, political party or movement is how egos group together to survive and "stay safe."

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Thank you @techwizardry for your clever and to the point comment. Yes there are macroscopic differences between the fundaments of our philosophical thinking compared to the oriental one (Socrates vs. Confucius / linear vs. circular). Not to mention the religious aspects.
You comment pushed me to rephrase my final toughts (see above) and explain them a little better. My point is that there's a line beyond which the normal and positive social collaboration becomes something pathological and out of control. In other words, those "guards" were average students, clever and with culture, psychologically weak subjects were purposedly excluded from the experiment...If it's so, what made them become capable, in the short time of a week, of forgetting the fiction and torturing other students like them? This is something worth to be deepened I guess. Btw, did you know about these experiments?

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I was very much familiar with the Stanford Prison Experiment, but I hadn't heard of The Third Wave.

"My point is that there's a line beyond which the normal and positive social collaboration becomes something pathological and out of control."

How would you define this line then?

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Ok thanks for telling me, I'm trying to understand if I should write about other social experiments mainly about conformity..yes I realised that the Third Wave experiment is usually not so known (by the way, the movie "Die Welle" is very interesting, I think you could like it @techwizardry). This is a line that you never cross perpendicularly but in a diagonal way, If I have to make a similitude. This way, it's not easy at all to realise the moment in which you crossed it. I feel I cannot give answers, but I strive to keep my mind free from superstructures and conditionings..If we're here we may be on the right track (as long as steemit will give voice and strenght to free people)..too idealistic?

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Thanks, I'll check out that film soon. Keeping the mind free of conditioning and rigidity is a very healthy practice.

Let's see what happens when Steemit get big. We might start seeing the same behavioral patterns here as well.

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Another good point.. steemit could become elitarian and discriminative. The economical aspect joint with the social one is quite powerful.

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Steemit is a fascinating experiment and I'm looking forward to finding out how the whole platform and its users evolve over time. We might even see Steemit being mentioned in psychology books someday. Hopefully we won't turn out like the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Thx for stopping by on my blog.
Leaving a follow and upvote as well :)
Cheers

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Thanks dude, cheers to you! Keep up the good work

Great post, compliments. I saw that movie you quoted, impressive. When reading your article, the atrocity of Abu Grahib prison cme into my mind.

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Thank you @steelochlaver. That's a very good example of how human nature can turn for the worst under certain environmental circumstances, you really stressed the point.

Stellar write up!

Are you familiar with Chuck Palaniuk?

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Thanks so much @arbitrarykitten! He's between the writers in my books to read list... actually Im lost reading Infinite Jest, by Wallace, or i should better say im lost inside it.

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I'll have to check that out, we seem to have similar tastes :)

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I'm sure you would enjoy it ..it's a life experience more than a book .. i like the way you think in your articles :-)

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I read a bit about it in Goodreads and a few pages in Amazon, I need $13 to order it for kindle right now! lol it is really good so far! Thanks for the suggestion, I do believe this is going to be one of those books I cannot tear myself away from!

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See you there then, in the Enfield Tennis Academy, on the year of the Depend Adult Undergarment :-P (and if you suggest me something of Palaniuk I'll order it for my kindle aswell)

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Haunted by Chuck. It was my first novel I read by him. I had watched Fight Club, but never read it. Read Haunted- it's pretty horrific, and viscerally gory.

AND I do believe he had Stanford Experiment in the back of his mind when he wrote it...

Perfect month for it ;)

To me, the scary part about both of the experiments is how quickly people fell into the roles. a while back, I watched a documentary on the Stanford experiment with interviews of participants many years later - it still is with them.

What does this tell us about human nature and how can we safeguard ourselves to blindly fall into roles like that.....

You got my vote :)

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Thanks for your comment @mariannewest! Yes you put It down simple and to the point. This experiments tell us a lot more than many philosophical-abstract speculations. Falling into roles happens every day, even on a smaller daily scale, in the family ad much as at work for instance.

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so true!! kind of scary to think how little we are in control :(

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