The Stanford prison experiment always fascinated me. It is a notorious experiment that took place over 40 years ago, in which a Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo turned the university’s department into a fake prison and divided the volunteers into prisoners and guards. While the experiment was supposed to run for 2 weeks, it had to be abruptly stopped due to the disturbing nature it had developed into. At one point, the prisoners staged a riot, and the guards went ballistic. They tortured the prisoners, forced them to sleep naked on the floor and to clean bathrooms with their bare hands. At no point did it occur for the subjects of the experiment -who were simply volunteers- to quit the experiment. Finally, 6 days later, Zimbardo ended the experiment.
This was not the only experiment with a disturbing insight into human nature. The Milgram Experiments involved subjects who were told to give memory tests to a person in a different room and were told to press a button that delivers an electric shock to the subject whenever they gave an incorrect answer. The subjects were in fact actors and the button did not deliver any shock, but this was unknown to the “testers”. They were even told that the voltage of the shock would increase with each wrong answer given. Result? Between 61 and 66 percent continued with the experiment until they reached maximum voltage of a supposed 450 Volts, despite the screaming and begging of the subjects (who were visible to them, by the way). At certain points, they did feel uncomfortable, but continued with the experiment when a guy in a lab coat encouraged them to carry on.
“Rhythm 0″ was an artistic piece that attempted to explore human nature with similarly shocking results. In her piece, the artist Marina Abramović told the public that she would not move for 6 hours regardless of what they do to her. There were many objects in the rooms arranged around her, ranging from flowers to a loaded gun.
Initially, Abramović said, viewers were peaceful and timid, but it escalated to violence quickly. “The experience I learned was that … if you leave decision to the public, you can be killed… I felt really violated: they cut my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away. It created an aggressive atmosphere. After exactly 6 hours, as planned, I stood up and started walking toward the public. Everyone ran away, escaping an actual confrontation.”
Think of the tragedies that occurred along the centuries. Wars involving torture, the holocaust, Abu Ghraib, the crimes committed against the Palestinians. We often think, how could people commit such atrocities? But are they really that difficult to commit?
In all of the above experiments, the subjects didn’t even have a motive to harm the others in the experiment. This makes imagining the development of gruesome situations in real life a lot easier.
After much criticism to the Stanford prison experiment Professor Zimbardo defended his experiment. “It tells us that human nature is not totally under the control of what we like to think of as free will, but that the majority of us can be seduced into behaving in ways totally atypical of what we believe we are,” he said.
Will you be any different?