Posted by: ritagone | October 21, 2015

The Presence and Problem of Power

 

power

 

In 1975, almost 40 years ago to the day, Stanford University researcher Philip Zimbardo organized and launched one of the most controversial and fascinating psychology experiments ever conducted. Called the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), the study randomly collected 24 middle-class college-aged males, recruited via newspaper classified ads and pre-screened to make sure they had no mental health issues or criminal history. These 24 young men were then randomly assigned to the roles of prisoners and prison guards in a realistic simulated prison environment. Though the guards were instructed to not harm the prisoners physically no matter what happened, they were also encouraged to think of themselves as actual prison guards and to instill in the inmates a sense of powerlessness, frustration and “arbitrariness,” to make them fully believe that their lives were controlled entirely by “the system” and that they had no freedom of action whatsoever.

What followed was a devastating manifestation of the human capacity for cruelty and evil, so powerful and dehumanizing that the researchers had to end the two-week experiment after the sixth day. What’s most striking about the study is that all the participants were “normal” young men, yet they came to identify with their assigned roles so deeply that their behavior and entire personalities morphed to unrecognizable extremes, due to the expectations of the respective roles.

There have been many studies made of this particular study, several documentary films, thousands of interviews of “prisoners,” “guards,” and the researchers involved in the project. The study has been studied intensively because of the results that it yielded.

Philip Lombardo later wrote an interesting book called “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil,” with many insights based on the SPE and its amazing repercussions. Studies like this certainly go a long way toward explaining Nazi Germany and how hundreds of thousands of people could be coerced into thinking that power can be used any way the powerful person in control sees fit.

The “prisoners” were mistreated, literally tortured, and completely denigrated by their “guards,” illustrating the awful truth that when given power, many people will abuse it. Especially frightening was the interview process after the experiment ended: many guards admitted to feeling absolutely no remorse or guilt over their treatment of the prisoners. It was as if the power itself was enough to give them the freedom to behave terribly. This would also explain why Hitler’s orders were carried out so willingly by so many: given power over their supposed adversaries, like the Jews and Catholics and others, those people felt a great freedom to do whatever they wanted, exulting in the fact that they were in control rather than the ones who were powerless.

What does this tell me about myself? Perhaps the only reason I’m not punishing or persecuting people is that I don’t have the opportunity or the power, and, were the situation different, my behavior would be terrifyingly different too.

What about you?

Have you fantasized about having more power than you feel you have now? And does that fantasy ever involve the inflicting of pain and sorrow on those over whom you have the power, a sort of revenge-filled dream where you are in control rather than feeling helpless against the whims of others?

I think – for me, at least – it certainly helps explain why we have so many situations around the world in which people are abused and mistreated, the powerful lording it over the helpless.

It brings to mind the incredibly astute saying of John Dalberg-Action, 1st Baron Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I’ll bet you’ve heard this quote over and over again in your life but never knew its source, or perhaps even attributed it to the wrong person.

But my oh my, is it profound, especially in light of something like the Stanford Prison Experiment! And what my own heart reveals to and about me.

 

 

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