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I was sick to my stomach. When it's happening to you, it doesn't feel heroic; it feels real scary. It feels like you are a deviant.
Professor Christina Maslach, UC-Berkeley, to psychologists
gathered in Toronto, Aug. 12, 1996
The view through the doorway was too familiar like something she had seen in the international news sections of Life or Newsweek.
Several young men dressed in khaki uniforms and wearing reflector sunglasses that hid their eyes were herding a larger group of men down a hallway. The latter were dressed in shapeless smocks that exposed their pale legs and the chains that bound one ankle of each man to another. Paper bag blindfolds covered their heads.
Christina Maslach's stomach reacted first. She felt queasy and instinctively turned her head away. Her peers, other academic psychologists, noticed her flinch. "What's the matter?" they teased.
On that fateful Thursday night a quarter-century ago, Maslach would take actions that made her a heroine in some circles as "the one who stopped the Stanford Prison Experiment." Even her now-husband, Stanford psychology Professor Philip Zimbardo, referred to the UC-Berkeley psychologist as a hero when he spoke to a group of undergraduates in his introductory psychology class last spring. But Maslach, her professional and personal lives reshaped by that night, rejects the label.
Speaking at a symposium of the American Psychological Association last summer, she urged other social science researchers to consider the circumstances of her alleged heroics:
Yet she had difficulty resisting the group pressure to be enthusiastic about what was going on in the name of science.
"At that point, I felt there was something wrong with me, thinking here I am, I'm supposed to be a psychologist, I'm supposed to understand, and I was having a hard time watching what was happening to these kids."
In the prison-conscious autumn of 1971, when George Jackson was killed at San Quentin and Attica erupted in even more deadly rebellion and retribution, the Stanford Prison Experiment made news in a big way. It offered the world a videotaped demonstration of how ordinary people middle-class college students can do things they would have never believed they were capable of doing. It seemed to say, as Hannah Arendt said of Adolf Eichmann, that normal people can take ghastly actions.
Details of the experiment are well known. They are included in most basic psychology texts and in a public television psychology course, "Discovering Psychology," that Zimbardo wrote and narrates. Movie rights have been optioned, "60 Minutes" has filmed a segment on the experiment, and even a punk rock band in Los Angeles calls itself Stanford Prison Experiment. In summary:
On Sunday morning, Aug., 17, 1971, nine young men were "arrested" in their homes by Palo Alto police. At least one of those arrested vividly remembers the shock of having his neighbors come out to watch the commotion as TV cameras recorded his hand-cuffing for the nightly news.
The arrestees were among about 70 young men, mostly college students eager to earn $15 a day for two weeks, who volunteered as subjects for an experiment on prison life that had been advertised in the Palo Alto Times. After interviews and a battery of psychological tests, the two dozen judged to be the most normal, average and healthy were selected to participate, assigned randomly either to be guards or prisoners. Those who would be prisoners were booked at a real jail, then blindfolded and driven to campus where they were led into a makeshift prison in the basement of Jordan Hall.
Those assigned to be guards were given uniforms and instructed that they were not to use violence but that their job was to maintain control of the prison.
From the perspective of the researchers, the experiment became exciting on day two when the prisoners staged a revolt. Once the guards had crushed the rebellion, "they steadily increased their coercive aggression tactics, humiliation and dehumanization of the prisoners," Zimbardo recalls. "The staff had to frequently remind the guards to refrain from such tactics," he said, and the worst instances of abuse occurred in the middle of the night when the guards thought the staff was not watching. The guards' treatment of the prisoners such things as forcing them to clean out toilet bowls with their bare hands and act out degrading scenarios, or urging them to become snitches "resulted in extreme stress reactions that forced us to release five prisoners, one a day, prematurely."
Zimbardo's primary reason for conducting the experiment was to focus on the power of roles, rules, symbols, group identity and situational validation of behavior that generally would repulse ordinary individuals. "I had been conducting research for some years on deindividuation, vandalism and dehumanization that illustrated the ease with which ordinary people could be led to engage in anti-social acts by putting them in situations where they felt anonymous, or they could perceive of others in ways that made them less than human, as enemies or objects," Zimbardo told the Toronto symposium in the summer of 1996.
"I wondered, along with my research associates Craig Haney, Curtis Banks and Carlo Prescott, what would happen if we aggregated all of these processes, making some subjects feel deindividuated, others dehumanized within an anonymous environment in the same experimental setting, and where we could carefully document the process over time."
Jekyll and Hyde experience
Maslach walked into the mock prison on the evening of the fifth day. Having just received her doctorate from Stanford and starting an assistant professorship at Berkeley, she had agreed to do subject interviews the next day and had come down the night before to familiarize herself with the experiment.
At first, she said, she found it "dull and boring."
"I looked at the prison yard from the point of view of the video camera [that had been set up to monitor it] and there was not much happening. So I went around to the other end of the hall where some guards were waiting to start their next shift."
There, she had a pleasant conversation with a "charming, funny, smart" young man waiting to start his guard shift. Other researchers had told her there was a particularly sadistic guard, whom both prisoners and other guards had nicknamed John Wayne. Later, when she looked at the monitor of the prison yard again, she asked someone to point out John Wayne and was shocked to discover it was the young man she had talked with earlier.
"This man had been transformed. He was talking in a different accent a Southern accent, which I hadn't recalled at all. He moved differently, and the way he talked was different, not just in the accent, but in the way he was interacting with the prisoners. It was like [seeing] Jekyll and Hyde. . . . It really took my breath away."
Several prisoners engaged in a debate with John Wayne, she said, in which they accused him of enjoying his job. He said that he wasn't really like that, he was just playing a role. One prisoner challenged this, Maslach said, noting that the guard had tripped him earlier when he was taking him down the hall to the bathroom. No researchers were around to see the act, the prisoner said, which indicated to him that the act reflected the guard's true disposition. John Wayne disagreed, saying that if he let up, the role wouldn't remain powerful.
Later that evening, Maslach said, she suddenly got sick to her stomach while watching guards taking the prisoners with paper bags over their heads to the bathroom before their bedtime. Her fellow researchers teased her about it.
After leaving the prison with Zimbardo, she said, he asked her what she thought of it. "I think he expected some sort of great intellectual discussion about what was going on. Instead, I started to have this incredible emotional outburst. I started to scream, I started to yell, 'I think it is terrible what you are doing to those boys!' I cried. We had a fight you wouldn't believe, and I was beginning to think, wait a minute, I don't know this guy. I really don't, and I'm getting involved with him?"
Zimbardo was shocked by her reaction and upset, she said, but eventually that night, "he acknowledged what I was saying and realized what had happened to him and to other people in the study. At that point he decided to call the experiment to a halt."
Says Zimbardo: "She challenged us to examine the madness she observed, that we had created and had to take responsibility for."
Maslach is one of several people whose life was redirected by the experience. Researcher Haney went on to earn a law degree from Stanford after obtaining his doctorate in psychology and became one of the leading legal consultants on prison reform litigation, as well as a teacher at UC-Santa Cruz of psychology and law and the psychology of institutions. Prescott, who was the research team's consultant on real prisons, had spent 17 years behind bars before the experiment. He stayed out of legal trouble afterward, taught at Stanford, hosted his own radio show and does community service.
Maslach married Zimbardo in 1972 and became a full professor at Berkeley, studying the processes of dehumanization. "I started interviewing prison guards, real ones, and also people in emergency medical care. Out of that grew a lot of the research I have done over the years on job burn-out," she said. Her work has looked at "how people who are responsible for the care and treatment of others can come to view those they care for in object-like ways, leading them, in some cases, to behave in ways that are really insensitive, uncaring, brutal and dehumanizing."
The first prisoner to be released from the experiment went on to earn a doctorate in clinical psychology, doing an internship at San Quentin. He became a forensic psychologist for San Francisco's city jail and is now a consultant who advises judges regarding motions for prisoners' release. Respected in his field, he requested that his name not be used for this story because "I don't want my name and face associated with this anymore. The first 10 years it was fun," he said, but now he feels "the media never gives up." Reporters and movie producers keep calling him in conjunction with the experiment, he said, because he became a prison psychologist. "I'm the gimmick that makes it cute, and Phil [Zimbardo] is totally unable to empathize with my position."
Zimbardo and Maslach say they feel an ongoing responsibility to communicate about and apply the research beyond the academic world, which is why they generally agree to do interviews about it.
For Zimbardo, the prison experiment also has led to research on a range of social situations that generate pathological conditions. He has studied the social psychology of madness and cults, shyness as a kind of self-imposed prison, and time perspective the way people come to be controlled by their overuse of past, present or future timeframes.
Zimbardo has testified before legislative bodies, courts and military corrections authorities. He is pleased that testimony about the research influenced Congress to change one law so that juveniles accused of federal crimes cannot be housed before trial with adult prisoners, because of the likelihood of violence against them. "Quiet Rage," a video that he and his Stanford undergraduate students produced from footage of the experiment, continues to be used in college classes and by civil, judicial, military and law enforcement groups to enlighten and arouse concern about prison life.
The experiment has not, however, brought about the changes in prisons or even in guard training programs that he would have liked.
In fact, prisons have been radically transformed in the United States in the last 25 years to make them less humane, Haney told the Toronto symposium audience. Voters have increasingly voted for politicians who take a tough public stance in favor of prisons as places for punishment, rather than for reforming social deviants. Long, determinate sentences are part of the new trend in policy, he said, as are an increasing number of prisons, like California's Pelican Bay, that put prisoners in long-term isolation.
"Psychology and other social science disciplines have been moved out of any kind of meaningful participation in debates over criminal justice policy," he said, urging the academics in his audience to "figure out ways in which we can re-involve ourselves in this debate."
In Zimbardo's view, prisons are "failed social-political experiments" that continue to bring out the worst in relations between people "because the public is indifferent to what takes place in secret there, and politicians use them, fill them up as much as they can, to demonstrate only that they are tough on crime. . . . They are as bad for the guards as the prisoners in terms of their destructive impact on self-esteem, sense of justice and human compassion."
Haney listed a number of lessons from the study that he said are largely ignored in American prisons as well as in other institutions of power today. The study demonstrated, for example, that "good people are not enough" to prevent abusive excess, he said. "Individual differences matter very little in the face of an extreme situation. . . . Institutional settings develop a life of their own independent of the wishes and intentions and purposes of those who run them."
And what about research institutions?
Zimbardo still has mixed emotions about the ethics of his experiment. His experiment has been criticized by some social scientists, as was the obedience experiment of his high school classmate Stanley Milgram, for its treatment of human research subjects.
In Milgram's 1965 experiment, the subjects were led to believe that they were delivering ever more powerful electric shocks to a stranger, on the orders of a white-coated researcher. Most were distressed by the situation, but two-thirds delivered the highest level of shock labeled "danger - severe shock." Like some of Zimbardo's guard subjects, some of Milgram's were anguished afterward by the revelation of their dark potential. When asked about the ethics of such research for a 1976 magazine profile, Zimbardo said that "the ethical point is legitimate insofar as who are you, as an experimenter, to give a person that kind of information about oneself. But my feeling is that that's the most valuable kind of information that you can have and that certainly a society needs it."
He told Stanford Report that he believes the pendulum now has swung too far toward protecting research subjects at the expense of new knowledge that could help society. "Our study went though the human subjects committee then because they didn't know in advance, nor did we, that anything would happen. . . . Now [review committees] assume everybody is so fragile, that if you propose to tell a research subject he failed a test, it will damage his self-esteem forever. So most research now is paper and pencil tests. We ask people things like 'Imagine you were a guard, how would you behave?' "
He would prefer, Zimbardo said, that human subjects review committees at universities "allow some controversial things to be done but in a highly monitored way. Videotapes should be checked every day, and there should be the option of an independent overseer blowing the whistle at any time."
He told the Toronto symposium audience last summer that the prison experiment was both ethical and unethical.
It was ethical, he said, because "it followed the guidelines of the Stanford human subjects ethics committee that approved it. There was no deception; all subjects were told in advance that if prisoners, many of their usual rights would be suspended and they would have only minimally adequate diet and health care during the study," which was planned to last two weeks.
It was also ethical for him to continue, he said, in that more than 50 people came to look at the study in progress and did not register any objections before Maslach registered hers. Among those who did not intervene were parents and friends of the students who came to see them on the prison's visiting nights, a Catholic priest, a public defender, and "professional psychologists, graduate students and staff of the psychology department who watched on-line videos of part of the study unfold or took part in parole board hearings or spoke to [the study subjects] and looked at them."
But it was unethical, he said, "because people suffered and others were allowed to inflict pain and humiliation on their fellows over an extended period of time."
"And yes, although we ended the study a week earlier than planned, we did not end it soon enough."
By Kathleen OToole