Christian Life

Seeing Christ in “The Stanford Prison Experiment”

My movie is The Stanford Prison Experiment.  It is based off of a real life experiment that took place decades ago.  Instead of focusing on the movie, I think it makes more sense to focus on the actual study and issues it brought to light…

Here is the set up: a professor named Zimbardo was studying role acquisition as it related to prison psychology.  So he got 24 white male college students to participate in a 2 week study in which 12 would be assigned the role of prisoners and 12 would be guards.  The prisoners would have to be there 24 hrs/day until the two week study was over, but the guards could go home when not working their 8 hr shift.  The local police agreed to help the study and “arrested” and “booked” the students before taking them to the fake jail set up in the basement of the college’s psychology building.  Both groups wore appropriate clothing to help get “into character.”  Furthermore, the prisoners would not be referred to by their names, but by the number on their outfit.  For this, they would each be paid $15 a day regardless of which group they were in.  (About $85 in today’s money adjusted for inflation.)  All the participants were screened beforehand, and those that were deemed the most mentally stable were selected.

In short, the study was a disaster.  The human rights abuses became so severe so quickly that after only 6 days the two-week study had to be ended as too much psychological harm was occurring.

After a relatively normal first day, the prisoners refused to follow instructions, to which the guards attacked the prisoners with fire extinguishers.  Basic sanitation also quickly was impeded by the guards as they chose to only allow the prisoners to use a bucket to pee and poop in, but then did not clean the bucket.  Some of the prisoners were forced to be naked; mattresses were also removed so they had to sleep on concrete.  The guards also became creative and used a nearby closet to implement solitary confinement.  It was all pretty insane; afterwards, some of the experimenters stated that 1/3 of the guards demonstrated “genuine sadistic tendencies.”

The study is so infamous for how quickly things went to hell; because of it, ethical standards were mandated to protect research participants.

Here is one thing that I found particularly remarkable: The study was well known at the college, and up to 50 people observed what was going on before one person (the girlfriend of Zimbardo) told him that he should stop due to the low morality of it.

While the experimenters spoke of psychological concepts such as role identity, groupthink, and powerlessness, I think as believers we can take a deeper (and more Real) position: we are DEEPLY broken and flawed, and without divine intervention, we are basically savage beasts.

Critics of the study stated that one of the biggest weaknesses of the study was that all the the participants were white, male, and from the same socioeconomic class (generally middle to upper-middle class given that they were in college).  To this I say that while their may be an element of truth to this as it pertains to the parameters of the study itself, history around the world aptly shows how cruelty knows no ethnic or societal boundaries.

Remember my last movie post?  About Killing Them Softly?  In it, I expound a bit on how our society is basically a giant system of rules to which everyone agrees to maintain order (the law for the lawless).  Studies like the one above augment that concept: that 21st society, with our technology and such, hasn’t done squat at making us better people: it only restrains the evil in our hearts from having greater expression.


Featured Image Credit: “Ran across this guy on campus a couple weeks ago. Creepy.” by Flickr user thejosephboys (cc)

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1 Comment

  1. Reply
    Donna
    March 15, 2016 at 6:00 pm

    Wow Thomas, that’s all so crazy and sickening – a true reflection of our state of wretchedness outside of Christ and His grace. For we have ALL fallen short – while we were yet sinners – LOST in sin – Christ died for us ….I’m sure glad He did!

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