Two weeks of hell, forty years ago

It’s been forty years since the Stanford prison experiment and the university’s alumni magazine has asked the participants and researchers for their reflections on their role in the notorious events of 1971.

It makes for a fascinating read as it not only gets Zimbardo to comment on the eventually out-of-control study but also talks to one of the abusive ‘guards’ (now a mortgage salesman) one of the ‘prisoners’ (now a teacher) and the whistleblower who eventually called for the study to end.

This is from Craig Haney, one of the researchers from the study:

I also realized how quickly we get used to things that are shocking one day and a week later become matter-of-fact. During the study, when we decided to move prisoners to different parts of the prison, we realized that they were going to see where they were and be reminded they’re not in a prison—they’re just in the psych building at Stanford. We didn’t want that to happen.

So we put paper bags over their heads. The first time I saw that, it was shocking. By the next day we’re putting bags on their heads and not thinking about it. That happens all the time in real correctional facilities. You get used to it. I do a lot of work in solitary-confinement units, on the psychological effects of supermax prisons. In places like that, when prisoners undergo the so-called therapy counseling, they are kept in actual cages. I constantly remind myself never to get used to seeing the cages.

The article sheds light both on the study and the lives of the the key players, now and then.

Link to article on Stanford Alumni Magazine (via @crimepsychblog)

5 thoughts on “Two weeks of hell, forty years ago”

  1. Thank you for this important reflection on this very valuable, if horrible experiment. The article gives an excellent example of how we habituate to the environment and how quickly that happens when we are ‘non-thinking’ – turning off our discerning mind is an act of self preservation in difficult situations. I can see the parallels in modern maternity care very clearly. Thank you again for this timely update.

  2. Stand out paragraphs…

    First from Zimbardo’s wife, the Angel who put a stop to it…”Phil came after me and said, “What’s the matter with you?” That’s when I had this feeling like, “I don’t know you. How can you not see this?” It felt like we were standing on two different cliffs across a chasm. If we had not been dating before then, if he were just another faculty member and this happened, I might have said, “I’m sorry, I’m out of here” and just left. But because this was someone I was growing to like a lot, I thought that I had to figure this out. So I kept at it. I fought back, and ended up having a huge argument with him. I don’t think we’ve ever had an argument quite like that since then.”

    Zimbardo’s must be a smart guy and fast learner. That girl’s obviously one of those where you shut up, listen to, and then never ever let go of her. (Like my wife)

    The other stand out paragraph was from one of the guards…
    “When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, my first reaction was, this is so familiar to me. I knew exactly what was going on. I could picture myself in the middle of that and watching it spin out of control. When you have little or no supervision as to what you’re doing, and no one steps in and says, “Hey, you can’t do this”—things just keep escalating. You think, how can we top what we did yesterday? How do we do something even more outrageous? I felt a deep sense of familiarity with that whole situation.”

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