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Lessons from the Stanford Prison Experiment

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Many years after the Stanford Prison Experiment (see Punitive Justice Distilled: the Stanford Prison Experiment), Philip Zimbardo wrote a book called The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. In it, he considered the larger ramifications of the 1970s college project that was designed to differentiate between what people bring into a prison environment from what the prison environment brings out in the people who are there.

As he considered the larger perspective, he attributed the descent into depravity of the normal, emotionally healthy college students who participated in the experiment to the cultivation of an ecology of dehumanization. (Zimbardo, 223) The most important lesson learned was that when good people do terrible things, it is the outgrowth of systems that provide the necessary institutional support, authority, and resources for such acts to be perpetrated.

The torture and inhumane treatment perpetrated by otherwise normal American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq war is an example cited by Zimbardo of how an ecology of dehumanization turns good people into monsters. Another is the slaughter of more than five hundred Vietnamese women, children, and elderly men by American soldiers at My Lai during the Vietnam War. He cites many others. Zimbardo posits a question which, he notes, is rarely asked:

"Who or what made it happen that way?" Who had the power to design the behavioral setting and to maintain its operation in particular ways? Therefore, who should be held responsible for its consequences and outcomes? Who gets the credit for successes, and who is blamed for failures? (Zimbardo, 226)

When good people engage in terrible acts, our traditional justice system focuses on the individual. Who broke the law? How should that person be punished? In fact, there are many forces at work. Aspects of our legal, religious, economic, psychiatric, and social systems, in a multitude of ways, actually legitimize certain wrongful conduct.

When we focus on individual guilt instead of all the forces at play, we cannot see the root of problems, find interests we have in common, or achieve the wellness of the whole. As a result, we all lose.

Zimbardo points out that it is not always easy to pinpoint the culprits. An ecology of dehumanization is often cloaked in ideology that justifies the conduct as necessary to attain an ultimate goal. The ideology permits those up and down the chain of command to present destructive conduct as a highly valuable moral imperative, and many become involved in its implementation. As the ideology becomes widely accepted and opposition is silenced, the procedures are condoned, justified as reasonable and appropriate. (226.)

What these atrocities bear witness to is the dismal world of duality--the mistaken belief in separation. It leads us to see attack as the only means of defense, to see victory in taking from others all they have, including life, and even to blame the victims for the avengers' vengeance and greed.

The good news is that the same universal laws that give rise to endless cycles of war and destruction when we choose duality also guarantee that peace and security will arise when Oneness is the principle we choose instead. Respect, honesty, transparency, and generosity serve us far better than retribution and revenge. Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you is the principle that assures a new and safer world.

Good apples rot in a rotten barrel. Zimbardo also notes that turning the social model around to enhance positive acts can be effective in achieving desirable outcomes. (450) It is the environment that is often the deciding factor.

For example, in a prison in Virginia, when a guard ransacked an inmate's cell during an inspection, he was reprimanded. In the culture the warden established and carefully tended, the cells of inmates were seen as the inmates' homes and are to be treated with the respect a person's home deserves. Inspections were to achieve their legitimate goal, not to violate the inmates' sense of security and self-respect that the warden is trying to instill.

Misconduct among inmates in this particular prison was a rare occurrence. Being held to a common moral standard that applied to and benefited everyone motivated members of the community to measure up, accepting the organizing principle of the environment they were living in as their new norm.

The principle stands: when you attack another, you attack yourself; when you harm others, you self-destruct. It is also true that mercy begets mercy, generosity begets generosity.

When all is said and done, it is not who, where or when, it is how. How we treat one another on a daily basis, how we respond when conflicts arise, how we teach our children to behave by what we model for them, not by what we say, that determines if we live in a safe world or not. If we want to be safe, we need only insure that others are safe.

Posted on on 9-16-10.

Based on an excerpt from Beyond Vengeance, Beyond Duality: A Call for a Compassionate Revolution.

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