Let’s imagine this thought experiment:
We take a group of college students and randomly assign them to two roles. One group is told that they will play young 20-something urbanites from Manhattan. The other group is told they will play young fourth-generation farmers from the Upper Midwest. Put them in a room together and listen to the conversation. Before long you will hear arguments about farm subsidies, labor unions, conservative values, literature, the role of the humanities in education, and whether or not the New York Times is the ne plus ultra of journalism.
Some of the college students may really be from Manhattan, some may really be from small agricultural communities, but the rest are just doing what they are told and filling the role as they expect it should be played. None of it is real. None of it has anything to say about whether farmers ever read the New York Times or whether Manhattanites really have no interest in agriculture (that Starbucks-sipping yuppie may be a trader in wheat futures). There’s a serious limit to what you could conclude about political opinions, cultural values, and human behavior based upon a bunch of kids playing roles.
Yet, this is exactly the theory behind Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s oft-celebrated prison experiment, which was remembered recently in a BBC news story about its 40th anniversary. In 1971 Zimbardo randomly assigned college students to play either prison guards (back then they were never called correctional officers) or prison inmates. Within a matter of days, the “guards” became brutal and sadistic, while the prisoners became either broken and helpless or defiant. The students’ psychological reactions to the experiment were so extreme that the project had to be ended after 1 week.
The experiment would have quickly been forgotten had it not been followed within months by two major prison riots, one at San Quentin and another at Attica in New York. The San Quentin and Attica riots involved thousands of inmates and the deaths of both correctional officers and prisoners. Public attention and the news media quickly focused on harsh prison conditions at both facilities, and Zimbardo – in spite of no actual training or experience in the field – hit the spotlight as a prison reform “expert,” testifying before Congress and in a number of criminal trials about the psychodynamics of power.
The political fallout of the experiment was so great that people today tend to overlook the fact that the experiment was simply bad science. It was an unblinded study, with no control groups, in a non-correctional environment. The prison “guards” were given none of the training given to all correctional officers: training about the law, the use of force, civil rights, cultural diversity, and how to work with the mentally ill. They did not belong to a professional organization or subscribe to the correctional officers’ code of ethics. In short, there was nothing resembling reality.
As one of the pseudo-guards put it in the BBC story:
“After the first day I noticed nothing was happening. It was a bit of a bore, so I made the decision I would take on the persona of a very cruel prison guard,” said Dave Eshleman, one of the wardens who took a lead role.
But one former “prisoner” said it better:
“The worst thing is that the author, Zimbardo, has been rewarded with a great deal of attention for 40 years so people are taught an example of very bad science.”
This is not to say that brutality and mistreatment does not exist in correctional facilities. But it is not the inevitable result of working in a controlled, punitive environment. While prospective correctional officers are given pre-employment screening for obvious mental illness, personality disorders and criminal involvement, this will not necessarily prevent future on-the-job problems due to marital stress, depression, substance abuse or financial issues. These risk factors are common to many high stress professions and are also present in impaired physicians.
This may be the biggest drawback of the Stanford prison project. If all officer misconduct is attributed to the prison environment we may fail to recognize misconduct risk factors that can be caught early and treated.
<[QM]>—Annette Hanson, M.D.
Dr. Hanson is a forensic psychiatrist and co-author of Shrink Rap: Three Psychiatrists Explain Their Work. The opinions expressed are those of the author only, and do not represent those of any of Dr. Hanson’s employers or consultees, including the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene or the Maryland Division of Correction.