The “Stanford Prison Experiment” is one of the most controversial experiments conducted in recent times that throws light on how powerfully a situation (even an artificially created one) can influence our thoughts and actions. How primitive and barbaric instincts can emerge in the absence of consequences.
In August, 1971,a research group led by Stanford University Psychology Professor, Philip Zimbardo conducted this controversial experiment involving college students.
The main aim was to study people in prison situations based on the roles of prisoners and guards. The two groups had their roles clearly divided on the basis of power and the lack of it.
The experiment required the students to play the roles of prisoners and guards for a fortnight in a prison like environment. For this purpose, the basement of the Stanford Psychology building was converted into the mock prison.
The result of the experiment proved to be a shocking revelation.
The seething sadistic tendencies demonstrated by the “guards” soon established the dangerous fact that the safety of the “prisoners” was at stake. After a mere 6 days the experiment was called off.
The degeneration that resulted from the exploitation of power and authority had caused an intriguing behavioral decay in the group of ordinary college students.
History provides us with numerous historical examples as well. Events that force us to question the strength of “universal human compassion”. Is compassion in the absence of authority or without fearing the the law a little unrealistic?
The African slave trade that existed from the 15th to the 19th century is a shameful chapter in history that we cannot forget. This trade flourished purely to satisfy the irrational belief of many regarding human supremacy on the basis of colour and race and sheer greed.
The extermination of more than 6 million innocents purely on the basis of their ethnicity during the World War 2 is yet another example of the heartless cruelty that humans are capable of.
The colonization of countries that roughly began in the 15th century saw the catastrophic annihilation of several native tribes and their cultures.One of the most well known cultures that were traumatized due to the arrival of the colonists were the Red Indians in America. Colonization brought into light our tendency to destroy what is “foreign” to our culture to suit our purpose.
The caste system in India that has existed since ancient times, is also an atrocious example of discrimination and unfairness. Those belonging to to the higher castes lived their life with dignity and respect. The lower castes were eternally subjected to severe social stigmatization and harsh treatment from those who were from the higher castes for generations.
These examples mirror our tendency to inflict violence on the helpless or the weak and prove one fact. Our metamorphosis into becoming a species that prides in being conscientious and altruistic can only happen if we effectively utilize our intelligence for a positive impact of our actions.
Do we need to only behave in a civilized manner when we are monitored or when we fear a repercussion for our actions?
The more we are conscious of the impact of our actions and our thoughts, the less we would be led to exploit the power we have in our hands. This acquired belief in the control of our thoughts and behaviour would enable us then to focus our energy or activities in the development and improvement of our personality along with that of the environment.
Furthermore, this philosophy would help us to work harmoniously with others to create a better living environment for all.
Before we get to discussing the steps that would make us continuously aware of our role as a member of society, we would need to ask ourselves the vital question.
“How do we wish to be treated?”