Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Incarceration of the Innocent: A Look into the Stanford Prison Experiment

Though simulated, the Stanford Prison Experiment seriously affected its participants.

The social sciences offer much knowledge about people, cultures, organizations, and societies. Among the field’s many studies are those that explain human psyche and behavior. One classic research is the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) that sought to analyze human nature in the context of a simulated penitentiary.

An overview of the SPE

Using a grant from the US Office of Naval Research, Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo and his team of social psychologists constructed a pseudo-detention centre within the Stanford University’s Department of Psychology building in 1971. According to its website, the SPE aimed to determine ‘the psychological effects of prison life’ on college students who functioned as inmates and/or jail protectors (Zimbardo 2011, p. 4). What could have been a two-week simulation act ended abruptly on its sixth day due to abusive fake jail guards and the strong objection of Dr. Zimbardo’s colleague who ‘questioned its morality’ (p. 38).

The contemporary significance of SPE

The SPE showed the changes people go through when they are in authority or when they fall prey to the control of others. In the context of rehabilitating criminals, such control often leads to curtailment of human rights (Delaney 2004, p. 8). 

Based on the behavior of SPE participants, it is evident that their values were affected by the mock prison system. Unlike the guards, the prisoners did not know that they were already a part of a “quasi-reality show” to which they initially consented. The only difference they had with current reality TV participants was that their experience was not for a contest with a grand prize, but for an academic study whose results are still used by its lead researcher decades after it ended. Dr. Zimbardo defended an abusive Abu Ghraib guard during a military trial in 2004 (Saletan 2004, p. 1 ).

Some insights about the SPE

Though the SPE ‘demonstrated the power of situations to determine human behaviour’ (Schwartz 2004), imprisonment and the jail system are crucial to preserving the status quo. John Delaney (2004) notes how different governments use crime-control and criminal law to discourage dissent and promote capitalist values and interests (pp. 7-9).

In this light, SPE’s fake jail and penal practices showed the merging of material and cultural elements to legitimize and reinforce ‘dominant political, economic, and social values’ (Delaney 2004, p. 9). The adoption of real prison facilities, rules, and disciplining methods helped Dr. Zimbardo and his team contain the rebellion that took place during their experiment. These same factors created an oppressive environment that caused several SPE prisoners to suffer from emotional breakdowns (Schwartz 2004). Thus, the impact of this experiment on the mental state and behavior of the participants should serve as a lesson for researchers each time they use human beings as “guinea pigs” to support their ideas. It seems then that the academe is instrumental in protecting and strengthening the status quo.


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