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About Me:18-year-old sixth form student, studying English Literature, History and Government and Politics. My articles will broadly cover topics from the current affairs of politics to reviews of books and albums, as well as adding my own creative pieces, whether it be short fiction or general opinion.
So what does the Stanford Prison Experiment illustrate to us? Well, most importantly, it shows how situational and systemic forces created a ‘bad barrel’ in which ‘good apples’ became rotten. This then makes us question the legal proceedings against those who commit such acts of evil. It does not, as Zimbardo repeatedly reinstates, absolve people of their immoral actions, but looking at crimes from such a panoramic perspective means that these crimes cannot be judged in a vacuum. It could, I believe, be used to mitigate sentences. As I found myself reading this book however, I found that the revelations of this experiment were not all that novel to me. We all understand the importance of situational circumstance (‘they probably had a bad upbringing’ etc.). Such familiarity with information ignites further anger, then, at the discrepancy between the sentences given to white middle class rapists such as Brock Turner (one whom we’d assume has been surrounded by stability and moral upstanding) and black working class men who commit the same crime.
The experiment also deals with the more specific ways in which we as humans are able to enact evil deeds. In his book, Zimbardo explores the way in which dehumanisation and deindividuation play a pivotal role in the way we treat our fellow human beings. In the Stanford Prison Experiment, as mentioned before, the prisoners were assigned, and addressed by, numbers, ridding them of their individual identity. The psychological implications are such that in their written accounts, one of the guards even addressed the prisoners as ‘numbers’, and thus found it easier to mistreat them. In exploration of other such examples of dehumanisation in history, Zimbardo takes us down the path of the Nazi regime and the holocaust. In this regime, it is well known that Joseph Goebbels, the lead Nazi propagandist, sought to dehumanise the Jews as much as possible to create a widespread public desensitisation of their murder. Such tactics include depicting them as vermin as well as grotesquely ugly in posters, films and literature. Zimbardo also explores the idea of deindividuation. This usually comes in the form of rendering oneself anonymous or changing one’s appearance. In the experiment this was seen in how the guards wore sunglasses and uniform. In other examples, such as soldiers at war, the very act of wearing military uniform and painting of the face changes their psychological make-up.
Zimbardo then goes on to draw parallels between the SPE and the diasters at Abu Ghraib prison, which are eerily similar, almost acting as further proof of his hypothesis. So, you may think, that given such abundance of evidence pointing to our susceptibility to evil-rendering tactics, that hope is somewhat weightless. Indeed, the book touches on the ‘banality of evil’, something that is not so much surprising or original in each of us as a race. But, alas, Zimbardo finishes his book with a glimmer of hope: the celebration of heroism and tactics to ensure that we are attentive to such forces acting on us, so that we do not fall victim to their power.
Image Credits: stu.uk.org