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Love Of The Prison

Results from a prison experiment show how people go to terrible lengths to obey authority even when scenarios look suspicious or unscrupulous

Twenty-four college students were asked to participate in a simulation study to understand behavior between guards and prisoners in a makeshift prison at Stanford University. Most students when interviewed, wanted to play the role of the prisoner. They were going to make $15 a day.

Philip Zimbardo, one of the most revered academics in social psychology, designed the Stanford Prison Experiment. He wanted to study the interaction between makeshift guards and prisoners and test how easily they tend to slip into their predefined roles. Did they behave according to their role or did they use judgement and morals?

As part of the experiment, prisoners were stripped of their individual identify. They were arrested from their homes. After which, they were addressed to by a number while the guards were dressed in aviator goggles and cop uniform to emphasize their roles.

The experiment took a vicious turn on the first day itself. Guards started humiliating the prisoners and showcased sadistic tendencies. A revolt from one prisoner was brutally crushed. Most other prisoners became submissive and accepted their identity as powerless. After some time, they stopped complaining and seemed to accept their fate. The experiment was supposed to last 15 days but lasted six due to the violent nature of events.

Obedience to authority and the impact of environments on human behavior emerged as the key learnings of the Stanford Prison Experiment!

The experiment showed that some people can go to any lengths to show obedience to authority. Perfectly normal people, in positions of authority, can turn out to be brutal. A perfectly normal student transformed into a nightmare of a prison guard. Certain environments can transform and dehumanize people. In certain cases, the adverse transformation can be for a long period of time.

Similarly, influence of peers can have a pronounced effect on human behavior. Prisoner 819 broke down while the other prisoners are made to scream that he is a bad prisoner.

The experiment is also used to explain Cognitive Dissonance, the stress experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs. One of the guards, clearly uncomfortable with the treatment being meted out to the prisoners, is trapped between enforcing the brutality of the other guards and being empathetic to fellow participants in the guise of prisoners.

Although the experiment generated a lot of buzz in academic circles, it received a mix response from academicians. They contended that simulation conditions weren't appropriate as Professor Zimbargo got actively involved and some of the mock acts like prisoners not being allowed to use their names or not wear undergarments weren't appropriate. However, the abuses at Abu Ghraib Prison have seen a disturbing similarity to the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Numerous other documentaries and movies have been made on similar prison experiments!

The topic has generated a lot of interest amongst researchers. Numerous studies and documentaries have been made to study prison behavior. The most reputed one is the BBC prison study in 2002. It questioned the core finding of the Stanford Prison Experiment that people slip into their allocated roles as easily indicated by the Stanford Prison Experiment. Instead, it concluded that groups of prisoners, when fail internally, turn against authority. Interestingly, it also had to be ended before its end date.

Management implications of such behavioral experiments are many!

The single biggest inference for organizations is to realize how people show obedience to authority. If these results can be generalized, it is disturbing to see how people go to terrible lengths to comply to authority even when scenarios look suspicious or unscrupulous. You don't have to look too far than the villainous bankers fueling the 2008 Sub-Prime financial crisis. Even good workers under bad bosses can subconsciously start replicating bad behavior. As the experiment shows, sadistic tendencies, even in educated rational people, in minor forms can get passed on.

Interestingly, people who serve a long time in a particular organization start acting and behaving in the same way. A firm known for its collegiate amicable culture reflects that culture in its people behaving and looking like it. Likewise, a product of a 'dog eat dog' work culture can reflect its tendencies. The environment at the top almost always gets replicated across various levels of the firm. Individuality can often take a back seat as a make shift environment enforces uniformity.

It is fairly obvious that leadership matters and the environment created at the top is of vital importance. While everybody speaks of this, it can be tricky to implement this across the firm. While every CXO reiterates how people are their strongest asset and their firm is built around that adage, reality can often be different.

A good way to implement this would be to get a reputed third party agency to take an engagement survey for all its employees, existing and former, and make its entire results public. The organization can even make it an addendum document in its annual reports. Such an act can put the entire onus on the firm to be serious about what it is saying. The thought might be farfetched but it is a good way to test if paraphrases like 'good work culture', 'people as key assets', 'employee friendly' are more than just fancy buzzwords.

In conclusion, the results of such legendary experiments can be disturbing to the analytical, rational, educated mind. The implications of such results in large organizations and the permanent behavioral change it can induce in seemingly normal people can be permanent and damaging. Bold steps rather than verbal buzz words might be needed to address this.

Maybe in the next prison experiment, the guards won't breach their code of conduct and the prisoners won't suffer psychologically. The results, though, might be dull and boring without any potential for cinematic adaptation!

Is that so?
-Did you know that the wife of Professor Philip Zimbardo, Christina Maslach, was instrumental in abruptly stopping the Stanford Prison Experiment?
-Did you know that an episode of the hit detective series "Castle" referred to the Stanford Prison Experiment?

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Sandeep Das

The author, Sandeep Das, is an MBA from IIM Bangalore, a management consultant, the author of “Yours Sarcastically” and a columnist.

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