Broken brains - the terrifying things everyone is capable of doing (Part 3)

by Dorian Minors

March 6, 2015

Analects  |  Newsletter


Want to know what happens when you lock up 24 young blokes in a pretend prison, half as guards and half as prisoner? Well, let’s be honest, you already have an idea. But I bet you won’t believe just how far things went.


This is an article from our predecessor, The Dirt Psychology.

filed under:

Unfiled: this is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.

Article Status: Complete (for now).

Imagine one of the most complicated Lego contraptions you ever built without using the instructions. Did you ever run out of the pieces you needed to finish it? Maybe substituted two little, different coloured blocks for one long one? It wasn’t perfect, but it did the job. Well that’s kind of like the human brain (we think). And sometimes, that imperfect solution may have worked for a time, but causes some serious problems now. Or maybe it was always a problem, but no one ever noticed before. Well, psychology notices. Here’s the next in our mini-series on those problems and how to solve them.

image Famous image of naked and blindfolded detainee at Abu Ghraib sourced from Wikipedia. This kind of image really foreshadows whats coming up in the article.

What are some prime examples of authority gone wrong? I’m not talking about when failed states or extremist non-states try to implement order. I’m not even talking about when established and successful states that people always complain about do naughty things. I’m talking about when the ‘good guys’ go bad. Think Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay and the terrible stories of torture and abuse at the hands of authority figures that came out of those prisons. What about police brutality, and although it’s flavour of the moment to pick on the US for this kind of thing, it happens elsewhere too. Australia’s thought to have some terrible recent history. The same is evident in the UK. Essentially, even when humanity is trying really hard, we do some terrible things. Well, you would have known this if you had been involved in Phillip Zimbardo’s 1971 ‘Stanford prison experiment’.

Zimbardo brought together a bunch of young students for a two-week long experiment in the basement of his facility. Yeah, it’s that kind of experiment; although I’m not sure Zimbardo thought it would go as far as it did. Funnily enough, Zimbardo’s team tested fairly extensively for mental and physical health ostensibly to maximise the safety of the participants. Then after selecting 24 of the highest scoring participants, he set half as guards and half as prisoners. It amazes me that people volunteered for this and things go about as well as your expecting given the context of the article.

Within 36 hours, one prisoner went so nuts (screaming and raging) they had to release him. 48 hours and the prisoners were rioting with the guards shooting them with fire extinguishers. By day three, prisoners were cleaning toilets with their bare hands, which may not have been so bad since the guards also often punished the prisoners by not letting them go in the first place. By day five prisoners could be found forced into nakedness, sleeping on concrete (mattresses were often removed as punishment) with bags over their heads and sleeping near buckets of their own excrement.

What is more bizarre is that no one requested to leave. The subjugation was so absolute that no one questioned it. One went on a hunger strike (and was punished by being forced into a closet for the rest of the experiment). Others would submit requests for ‘parole’ (getting out but forfeiting the pay from the experiment) but would wait for acceptance or denial, yet they could get out at any time by simply asking.

Well, that might not be true. Zimbardo appears to have lost it too. He appointed himself superintendent and got so into it that when there were rumours that a previously released ‘prisoner’ was going orchestrate a prison break, Zimbardo moved the whole experiment rather than simply confront the prisoner. And none of over 50 recorded observers thought to complain about the experiment or question the goings-on.

Luckily, a plucky young student (that Zimbardo was dating) stepped up to the challenge and as a result the experiment was terminated six days in. Which just makes you wonder what another couple of days might have shown us.

Alright. Now to get into the science. Zimbardo really messed up from an empirical standpoint. There was no maintenance of  the controls necessary for something to be considered an experiment. Zimbardo himself was far from neutral. The study can’t possibly be generalised to the community at large due to the sample size and the bias involved. And there was some serious bias involved. Like the super suggestive way Zimbardo introduced the experiment to the guards (essentially; ‘we can’t beat them up, but you can mess with them in other ways’). And the things Zimbardo outlined as a-ok came from a legitimate ex-inmate (seriously, they interviewed 17 year vet of the infamous San Quentin). Really, quite a terrible study. It does highlight what CAN happen though. The study has been replicated since and although the results weren’t even close to the same it casts some light on what might cause such horrendous acts to go on. Essentially the team involved in the replication, under Steve Reicher and Alex Haslam, tell us that it is the leadership that determines the actions.

So what does it mean? It means that authority has a huge impact on how we act. More so, the leadership behind that authority has the ability to sustain order or enable tyranny. So perhaps, when we’re looking at these atrocious stories filling up our news feeds about police brutality, we should stop blaming the faceless system and start blaming the people at the top – the people who have the power to change things for the better.

Gotta check out part one and part two of the series if you haven’t already and keep posted on part four. Learn some more terrible things we’re capable of given the right circumstances. Be sure to Join Us (below) to keep up to date. If you’re all up to date on the series, maybe you want to know the four terrible things (that aren’t a horrific experiment) that threaten your relationship. Or maybe just the reason (that isn’t a terrifying reflection of the human condition) that you and your mates or partner are fighting all the time? Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and ‘the good life’ at The Dirt Psychology. 

Ideologies you choose at btrmt.

Join over 2000 of us. Get the newsletter.