Saturday, September 20, 2014

Stanford Prison Experiment : An inquiry into Human Behavior.

Stanford prison experiment was conducted by Prof. Zimbardo in Stanford Univeristy in 1971. The experiment was done to find out how one behaves if someone is put in the context of a different role. Is it our personality trait which governs the behavior all the time or do we get impacted by the context and circumstances. 

The experiment was conducted by simulating a prison situation and dividing a group of people randomly in the role of prisoners and guards. Prisoners had to stay in the prison for 24 hours and the guards were rotated in shifts. The experiment was supposed to run for 2 weeks but was terminated in 1 week itself as the prison turned out to be behaving like an actual prison. Guards started behaving
like actual guards and prisoners like actual prisoners. Physical punishments were given by guards to prisoners. It happened that people in both roles absorbed the identity of guards and prisoners and started behaving like them. How the experiment was conducted can be seen in this video

The experiment raises one important question about the definition of self. How do we define our self or what makes us? Is there a concept of personality traits or do we get carry away with the context and start behaving as per the need of the role. Everyone of us carry multiple roles at the same time. For a given role how is our behavior defined? Is there a denominator of common traits that we carry.

Even if we look into Milgram experiment, the same question can be raised. If Milgram experiment was an experiment about the role of authority or people behaving in certain way as they have been asked to be in certain role. Did the context defined their behavior or it was the pressure of authority?

This also raises another aspect about the concept of personality traits. Psychologists have defined a set of personality traits like Big five personality traits. How do these personality traits react with the context to define our behavior.

Looking back into the experiments of Stanford or Miligram, the other way to look into that is also if everyone behaved to the same level of heaviness. That's not true so it seems like there is an element of personality which defines our reaction to the situation. What we inherently are and what is context is together defines the behavior or reaction. 

Is there a fixed ratio in terms of how much our inherent traits and how much context plays the role in defining the behavior. I think there is again no set formula. It's the traits of one personality in terms of how strong one thinks about one self or how cooperative they are. In terms of personality traits, this can be mapped to the agreeableness. The other personality traits have there own impact but I think agreeableness is one important factor which defines how fluid is our behavior. If we get carried away with situation or we keep our definition intact.

I am in no terms specifying that one behavior is better than other. Agreeableness in itself is not a good or bad quality. The goodness or the badness of the quality is itself defined in terms of context. This is true for any trait. Take example of prison experiment. Looking at the experiment we can might want to make a sweeping statement that guards did not behaved properly. Now let's change the context. Let's put the same set of guards but change the prisoners to actual prisoners with difficult social problems. Would the behavior of guards would still be justified? Again a word of caution, when I say actual prisoners with difficult social problem, I don't want to demean them. They are a product of our society and have reached at this level because of the nature of ecosystem they lived in. As a human we still are no where near to solving these problems at a more base level. We build prisons and rehabilitation homes to fix them. If we can spend even a fraction of that money on kids during their early formative stages, we may require far less prisons.

Coming back to our discussion, the other interesting thing to understand is how the experiment would have happened if the guards are real prison guards and the prisoners are  planted ones. Would the guard still behave as in experiment? 

There is another interesting aspect to this whole experiment or for that matter can be traced to actual life situations. What triggered guards behavior? Is it the bad behavior of the prisoners or the extreme behavior of guards was bound to happen. What would have happened if prisoners would have just obeyed everything from the point go. Would the guards have still behaved in the same extreme fashion.

There is another broader underlying phenomena with these experiments, that human society as a whole is trying to deal with. In the history of human race, the focus was always on the behavior of the prisoners or people in different situation and how the authorities can fix it. With the concept of democracy, the question is changing. The human race is trying to explore the questions of how authorities should behave. Reactions to many instances of prisoner abuse points to this fact. It seems , we want the authorities to behave in a more restraint fashion irrespective of the behavior of the captives. Milgram and Stanford experiments are probably the turning points for these. In autocracy, the authority was supreme. It cannot be wrong. The only thing to fix was the people behavior. In democracy the authority has also to behave in a restrained fashion. The changing values and nature of human society.

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