Das Experiment, Root of Evil?

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Is evil innate, or a product of circumstance in an individual?

Submitted: August 11, 2008

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Submitted: August 11, 2008




Das Experiment

Do all humans have the capability for absolute corruption given the right circumstances? This question has been posed many times to determine the root of evil in past events of history. According to Zimbardo’s article “most of us take comfort in the illusion that there is an impermeable line separately those bad people from us good people.” (Zimbardo, p. 3)

A term that has been coined (FAE) the Fundamental Attribution Error by L. Ross explains how people focus on the wrongdoing on the individual level as apposed to the situational factors that play an important role. (Zimbardo, p. 3). It is true that our society is based solely on the individual when it comes to triumphs as well as downfalls. “Our legal system does not have the mechanisms for dealing with the challenges posed by psychological analyses of situations and systems.” (Zimbardo, p. 22).

In the movie “The Experiment” 20 participants were divided into two groups, 12 “prisoners” and 8 “guards”. The experiment was designed to synthetically replicate a prison, yet violence was prohibited. Neither groups had former training or experience as guards or prison mates. This film was based on a 1971 psychological prison experiment that took place in Stanford’s basement. The objective was to test the limits of aggression and man’s self control. It was a thought provoking study, as was the film. The movie examines human condition, is it possible for man to maintain peace when he has great power over others?

If I was asked to testify in court on behalf of the prison guards in the experiment prior to reading Zimbardo’s paper, and seeing videos verifying the effectiveness of persuasion and escalation of exploited power, I would refuse and have no empathy for the guards. However, knowing what I know today and taking an in-depth look at the psychological perspective of manipulation on the individual and societies complete disregard for situational factors I would agree to testify for the guards. Milgram’s study is an example of mindless obedience to an authority figure. Psychologist that heard of Milgram’s study believed that only one percent of the people would actually give a shock to a random person if ordered to do so. The results were shocking and unexpected. There was a 90 percent compliance rate. The psychologists that made the one percent prediction believed only a sadistic individual would be capable of administering a strong shock to a random stranger, and completely discounted the situation that derived from the behavior in the experiment. (Zimbardo, p. 4)Just as the non sadistic and mentally well people that complied in Miligram’s study were, the prison guards in the experiment followed the orders of the director. The ordinary men were told “don’t play the role of a guard, be a guard”. This was blind obedience to someone who would reward them when the study was over.

According to Zimbardo there are ten steps to creating tricks that produce evil outcomes in normally good people. (Zimbardo, p. 3,4). Each step parallels gradually of how the experiment resulted in catastrophe. The first step was a proposal of an ideology. In this case the director told the role players they must act the part in which they were assigned. This is essential for the results of the experiment. The second is arranging some kind of contractual obligation, the obligation in the experiment was be a guard for 11 days and make sure your authority is respected and the rules are followed. They were told never to use violence .The third was giving the participants meaningful roles to play. In this case they were told not to play guards, but fulfill the roles as guards. The participants were given everything a guard would own including a uniform, handcuffs, and a baton. The fourth is to present basic rules to follow, they seem sensible at the time but are used to make sense of mindless compliance. The rules are made vague. The director of the program told them to implement five rules for the prisoners to follow. One rule in particular was to finish all of the food you are given. One of the prisoners was lactose intolerant, yet the guard forced him to drink his milk. This guard wanted to be respected by the prison mates and tried to make an example of one. This demand seemed to strike a rebellion from the prison mates, particularly number 77. At this point in the film, a power struggle first appears between the guards and the prisoners. The fifth step is replacing the semantics of the encounter with a more desirable less realistic one. Once there was an obvious power struggle between the two groups the guards use humiliation tactics to gain respect and dominance in the prison. They stripped the prisoners of their clothes and took their beds out of the cell. The prisoners were left naked, sleeping on the floor in a cold dark room. The next morning you can almost feel the eerie silence that amounts from the night before. The sixth is diffusion of responsibility. The director of the program told the guards in the beginning it is his experiment and he is delegating the power to them, they must obey and follow his orders to receive the award at the end of the study. He goes on vacation and one of the guards convinces the rest the study must continue, the director wants us to proceed even though it was apparent things escalated horribly. The eighth is the steps must gradually increase in a unobvious way. As the film goes on you see more and more degrees of hostility. In the beginning no violence is used, there isn’t even hostility. The guards just tell the prisoners to be quiet. Then they start to enforce the rules verbally. Once a refusal to comply to the rules was exposed, things turned disharmonic. Humiliation was used, and then ultimately violence. The end results were not foreseeable until much later. The steps were gradual, as they were in the Stanford prison study. There was no extreme shift to sadistic acts. The ninth was to change the initial just authority to irrational and demanding. In the beginning they use rules to govern. The prisoners become insurgent and one of the guards proposes humiliation as a tactic to gain respect and control, as the movie continues he tells the female doctor violence is the only way. The last step is making the exit cost very high. The guards made it difficult for the prisoners to leave, they strapped a humiliating sign on the back of a prisoner and made him stand outside of the cell naked hours on end for the others to see. The rebel prisoner known as number 77 was badly tortured and after they told the director he couldn’t handle it, and wanted to leave which he never said. They wanted to make him feel weak and that the experiment was too much to bare. He refused to leave to avoid looking weak and surrendering. These are ten gradual steps in creating evil traps for usually moral people. These steps exemplify how the guards became so abusive and relentless. Any normal human being could fall into the same pitfall given the right situation, unnoticeably progressing through the steps.

Another way in which people can separate there personal ethics and integrity for another person is Bandura’s Model of Moral Disengagement and Dehuminization. Which basically states a) one‘s own perspective on shameful conduct (justifying it morally); b) minimizing the consequences of action to ones self; c) Diffusion of responsibility; and d) In ones mindset dehumanizing the victim. (Zimbardo, p. 8). The guards justified their actions as they were doing a service by making the prisoners follow their regulations and maintain respect for them. They minimized the consequences believing it was necessary to use violence and humiliate the prisoners. The guards diffused the responsibility by “following” the directors orders, and doing all of the heinous acts as a group thus displacing their actions on to another. They dehumanized the prisoners by giving them numbers instead of names. They were no longer an individual to the guards but digits in a sequence of numbers. This model represents how a highly moral person can act unethically due to cognitive mechanisms that become altered. In an experiment done by Bandura’s, students overheard the person they were going to shock was either “nice” or an “animal”. Those labeled as animals had a more intensified shock, due to their dehumanized stigma.

It is clear that good people can do evil things, given the right condition to change their perception on an individual. These two theoretical models, and many situations have modified people’s moral cognition, which gives me great empathy for the prison guards in the experiment. One part of the movie was impressionable when the guards discussed their children and compared pictures, having close family ties showed their virtuous side. They didn’t start off as corrupt people, there unusual behavior was due to their circumstance. In society situation is nothing more than a minute justifiable extrinsic condition. Only if the individual is crazy should they be unaware of their wrongdoings. This traditional view has been extensively accepted and discounts any circumstantial factors that may make people do heinous things. A lack of open mind to a different perspective is the problem, convinced that the individual knows right and wrong no matter what the situation. These men where a victim of their external condition.

An article called Alcohol Expectancies and Intoxicated Aggression; portrayed peoples general consensus on aggression from alcohol use, the results were apparent; bad behavior is not justified because of intoxication. People gave harsher sentences to criminals who committed serious crimes under the influence than those soberly committing the same crime. Another conclusion drawn from the study was people do expect drinking to cause aggressive behavior, but hold the idea more strongly to others than to themselves. Most believe they are not capable of such aggressive acts even if drinking. But certain conditions mixed with pharmacological cognitive adjustment can facilitate bad behavior in an environment. (Quigley & Leonard, 2006, p. 2)

In conclusion the general public tend to attribute individual flaws to immoral acts, and discount the strong role external environment can play. Situation is highly under weighted when deciphering a persons punishment for there unethical behavior. The two models noted above give an alternate view of analyzing where the evil derived from in a circumstance,

Work Cited

Zimbardo, G. P. The Psychology of Power and Evil: All power to the person? To the Situation? To the System? Psychology Department, Stanford University.

Quigely, M. B. & Leonard, K. E. (2006). Alcohol Expectancies and Intoxicated Aggression. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 11, 484-496. Retrieved October 31, 2007, from PsycINFO database.

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