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Obedience to Authority: The Stanford Prison Experiment

Powerful Essays
Devin Crockrel
Shannon Smith
Eng 112
18 June 2013 Obedience to Authority: “The Stanford Prison Experiment” “The Stanford Prison Experiment” was a well-known and controversial study. It took place in 1973 and delved into the human psyche behind roles of authority, and obedience. The setting was a controlled prison environment at Stanford University. The experiment was meant to study the process in which “guards” and “prisoners” learn to become obedient, and an authoritarian. The subjects were recruited through an advertisement in the local newspaper. Out of 75 responses to the ad, 21 college-age men were chosen to become the “prisoners”, and the other half would become the “guards”. This study was meant to take place over a two week period, but was cut short because of the intensity of the subjects’ responses. The results of the study were surprising. The guards who were the authoritarian figures wore identical khaki uniforms and silver reflector sunglasses to create a sense of deindividualization. They also brandished whistles, billy club, handcuffs, and keys to the main gate. These were used as symbols of power to further enhance the guards’ proof of authority of the prisoners. The freedom to improvise and develop strategies for prisoner management. They were told that they would be held accountable to handle trouble that may come along and were warned about the seriousness and severity of the potential dangers of the “prison” they were going to be working in. The prisoners on the other hand were treated very differently. They were pushed to have a sense of anonymity by taking away their previous identities. Prisoners were made to wear smocks with nylon stockings. They were not allowed to use names the use of their personal identification numbers was only allowed. The cells that were created for the prisoners to live in were also barren and void of any personal effects. This made the cells appear similar and almost indistinguishable to the observers. The smocks that were issued were also worn with no undergarments which severely restrained the prisoner’s physical movements. This took away the prisoners feelings of masculinity and made them move more femininely. A rule was instated that the prisoners must ask a guard for permission to do simple and routine activities, such as using the restroom, smoking a cigarette, or even writing letters to their loved ones. The prisoners were in lockup after 10 PM so those who needed to relieve themselves had to do so in a bucket in their cell. Sometimes the guards would deny them the permission to clean them out which lead to the prison smelling, and conditions being even poorer than they were to begin with. This study showed how quickly people can let power and authority go to their heads. In this study the guards began treating the prisoners like they were less than human. It also shows how quickly humans can feel like they have had their humanity taken and begin to behave obediently as if they were a house pet. Over the course of the six days that this study occurred, the guards began to act more aggressively, and the prisoners became more passive. The aggressiveness and assertiveness the guards expressed led to dependency in the prisoners. As the sense of dependency grew more feelings within prisoners began to rise up such as, powerlessness, self-depreciation, frustration, emasculation, dehumanization. On the other hands the guards begin to develop the opposite type of feelings. They begin to develop feelings of self-worth, a sense of mastery, and authority. The longer the study went on the more the gap of feelings between the two groups grew. Eventually the guards began to act as if they were tyrants towards the prisoners rather than just “enforcing” the rules like they should be doing. The study took place over a period of six days because the reactions from the participants became too extreme. That should say a mountain of things about the United States prison system, and even prisons worldwide. When people are given a position of power who are not accustomed to having it, often times that newfound authority will be abused and pushed to the limits. That is what happened in this study. Average Joes were put in a position where they gain the type of power and authority over another human being that many long for. They soon forgot that they were part of an experiment, and began behaving sadistically. This was not because they were required to. It was because they wanted to, and although the guards may have known what they were doing was inhumane, unjust, and outright wrong. In their minds the level of disgust they had for themselves because for their actions, it was outweighed by the amount of pleasure they received from them. The prisoners rebelled against the guards the second day in the prison. Prisoners removed their id numbers, ripped off their caps, and put their beds against their doors to barricade themselves in their cells. This led to the guards behaving even more aggressively, and oppressing the prisoners. Surprisingly according to tape recorded conversations between the prisoners 10 percent of the talks the prisoners had between themselves was concerning “outside” topics, the other 90% revolved around issues and strategies to get particular guards to allow them to do something, and even escape plans. Although the prisoners were like this amongst themselves when the guards were around they became extremely obedient following orders without thought as if they were a herd of cattle. This study should raise some major concerns about the penal system today. The results and reactions from the “guards” and “prisoners” were so severe that the mock prison experiment had to be shut down after six days although it was originally scheduled for a two week period. One of the biggest questions that should be raised is if the supposed “cream of the crop” of our youths change so quickly and drastically, what happens to those who are not necessarily as sensible as your astute student attending a top tier university. The typical guard and prisoner in a modern day prison are not going to have the same morals, or sensibility as one who has a form of higher education. One with the experience of being a guard may argue that it is necessary to become that ruthless, and that it is also necessary to exert the power they have been given to control the prisoners. I personally have the experience on the prisoner end, and it is not. The way the guards abused their power at the facility I was at kept the prisoners at bay for a couple of days, but eventually a few of the prisoners rebelled against them. The abuse of power is only a temporary solution, it will make the people docile and obedient for a short period of time. Eventually feelings of anger, frustration, and hate will begin form. This is when prisoners begin to lash back out at the guards. No human being should be treated like the prisoners in this study were treated. The guards became extremely sadistic in a short period of time, and the prisoners because as compliant as a herd of lamb in the same period. Not only was the treatment that the prisoners received immoral, it was flat out inhumane. The people who were involved in this study were considered the “cream of the crop” of our youths. If they can succumb to power, and the lack of it so quickly somebody who is not as knowledgeable will succumb even more quickly and possibly even more drastically. Prison conditions in the United States are extremely inhumane. The sense of authority that is given to the guards who are there to regulate, leads to them running rampant with their newfound power. In turn this causes corruption amongst themselves, and also leads them to conduct behavior that may have placed some of the prisoners in prison in the first place. Not only are the guards an issue, but prisons are also over-crowded. Rather than being a place to house criminals’ prisons have become a booming business. The more criminals the prison houses, the more money the prison generates. This is what leads to prisons being overcrowded and unqualified peoples being staffed. By no means should prison be enjoyable by the prisoners that are being housed there. But nobody should be treated as inhumanely as the prisoners in this experiment were, or how prisoners nationwide are treated. Guards should be given less authority than they currently hold in prisons. If not less authority, there should be more rules and regulations rather than the amount of freedom that is currently granted on the job. The guards should be held even more accountable for their actions than the prisoners. This is because the guards are still free and are should to be setting an example for the prisoners of how they should behave. All in all the penal system in the United States can use a major overhaul. A better system of staffing is needed, overcrowding needs to stop. It also needs to be looked at from a humanitarian aspect rather than as a business. When you look at something like a prison as a business you begin to correlate human lives with the amount of money that you stand to make from them. The way things are now is nothing better than modern day slavery.

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