Brain Pickings

The Stanford Prison Experiment: History’s Most Controversial Psychology Study Turns 40

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Insights on identity and the aberrations of authority from the most notorious psychology experiment of all time.

Forty years ago today, the Stanford Prison Experiment began — arguably history’s most notorious and controversial psychology experiment, which gleaned powerful and unsettling insights into human nature. Orchestrated by Stanford researcher Philip Zimbardo, the study randomly assigned 24 middle-class college-aged males, recruited via newspaper classifieds and pre-screened to have no mental health issues or criminal history, to the roles of prisoners and prison guards in a hyper-realistic simulated prison environment. Though the guards were instructed to under no circumstances harm the prisoners physically, they were encouraged to think of themselves as actual prison guards and instill in the inmates a sense of powerlessness, frustration and “arbitrariness,” to make them fully believe that their lives were controlled entirely by “the system” and that they had no freedom of action whatsoever.

What followed was a devastating manifestation of the human capacity for cruelty and evil, so powerful and dehumanizing that the researchers had to end the two-week experiment after the sixth day. What’s most striking about the study is that all the participants were “normal” young men, yet they came to identify with their assigned roles so deeply that their behavior and entire personalities morphed to unrecognizable extremes, molded after the expectations of the respective role.

The study makes a very profound point about the power of situations — that situations affect us much more than we think, that human behavior is much more under the control of subtle situational forces, in some cases very trivial ones, like rules and roles and symbols and uniforms, and much less under the control of things like character and personality traits than we ordinarily think as determining behavior.” ~ Philip Zimbardo

Quiet Rage is a fascinating 1992 documentary about the SPE, written by Zimbardo himself and featuring archival footage of the actual experiment as well as interviews with the prisoners and guards conducted shortly after the study’s premature end. The 50-minute film is available online in its entirety — prepare to be hopelessly uncomfortable with both the experiment itself and the debriefing, which starts at around minute 32.

I really thought I was incapable of this kind of behavior, I was really dismayed that…I could act in a manner so absolutely unaccustomed to anything I would ever really dream of doing. And while I was doing it, I didn’t feel any regret, I didn’t feel any guilt. It was only afterwards, after I began to reflect on what I had done that this began to dawn on me and I realized that this was a part of me I hadn’t really noticed before.” ~ Mock Guard

I began to feel that I was losing my identity, that the person that I called Clay, the person who volunteered to go into this prison…was distant from me, was remote, until, finally, I wasn’t that. I was 416, I was really my number. And 416 was gonna have to decide what to do.” ~ Mock Prisoner

Though the experiment was essentially about how authority and power dynamics affect our capacity for evil, it’s also a powerful demonstration of a great many human psychological liabilities, from bystander effect as third-parties like parents, the priest, and even the researchers themselves accepted the prison as a prison rather than an experiment, failing to intervene and end suffering, to in-group-out-group bias as the inmates singled out the new replacement prisoner and began to treat him as a vilified “other,” to the painful cognitive dissonance of the guards, trying to later reconcile their atrocious actions during the experiment with beliefs they had about who they were as persons and as human beings.

It’s important not to think of this as prisoner and guard in real prison. The important issue is the metaphor ‘prisoner’ and ‘guard’ — what does it mean to be a prisoner, what does it mean to be a guard. And a guard is someone who limits the freedom of someone else, who uses the power in their role to control and dominate someone else, and that’s what the study is about.” ~ Philip Zimbardo

The study, as rattling and uncomfortable as it was, has connotations for everything from prison reform to conformity to self-improvement to violence, bullying and hate crime. For further insights from it, see Zimbardo’s excellent The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. Curiously, Zimbardo has since set out to explore the human condition from the opposite end of the good/evil spectrum, launching the Heroic Imagination Project — an effort to harness what psychology knows in advancing everyday heroism and the perpetration of good rather than evil.

Another documentary about the SPE, The Evilness of Power, is available for free on The Internet Archive. Here’s a short excerpt, in which Zimbardo discusses the key takeaways from the study:

Above all, the SPE is a powerful case study in how easily we become identified with the roles and personas that have been assigned to us — by society, by our peers’ or parents’ or partners’ expectations, by our political leaders, and, perhaps most powerfully, by us ourselves. As soon as we begin to see ourselves as a “prisoner” or a “guard” (or a lawyer, or an alcoholic, or a victim, or a genius), we begin to act as one. Gandhi, it seems, had it right after all:

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How a Book is Made: AD 400 vs. 1947 vs. 1961 vs. 2011

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A brief history of the bound page and our evolving collective narrative about its craftsmanship.

I love books, their past and their future. Yet, while ubiquitous and commodified, books and how they come to be remains an enigma for most of us. No longer. From Discovery comes this 5-minute microdocumentary on how books are made:

Compare this to how illuminated manuscripts were made, painstakingly written and decorated by hand and coveted as some of the most precious objects produced in the Middle Ages:

Fast-forward to 1947 with a short film on making books:

…and then this 1961 documentary on bookbinding:

Americans at work, in an art that is the preservation of all arts: The making of books. These men are masters of their tools, from the most primitive instruments to the latest equipments of the machine age. With other craftsmen, these are the people who make the pen mightier than the sword.”

While James Gleick might be right that we’ve come to fetishize books, it’s hard to ignore the palpable change in our collective narrative on books and the value we place in their making, from the romanticized work of craftsmanship to the roboticized industrial process narrated by a lady with an appropriately robotic voice.

For a richer celebration of the vanishing craft of traditional bookbinding, you won’t go wrong with Lark’s 500 Handmade Books: Inspiring Interpretations of a Timeless Form.

UPDATE 11/2011: Books: A Living History is a fantastic new book from the J. Paul Getty Museum, exploring the story of how books became one of the most efficient and enduring information technologies ever invented. Highly recommended.

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Samuel Beckett’s Only Cinematic Project: A Silent Film from 1965

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What a cinema history anachronism has to do with Chaplin’s replacement and the psychology of voyeurism.

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), the great Irish avant-garde playwright who gave us Waiting for Godot, turned himself into a screenwriter once during his literary career. In 1963, Grove Press commissioned Beckett to write a screenplay for a film — called quite simply Film — and Beckett knocked out the first draft in four days. Another draft soon followed, and it went to the director Alan Schneider, who later recalled:

The script appeared in the spring of 1963 as a fairly baffling when not downright inscrutable six-page outline. Along with pages of addenda in Sam’s inimitable informal style: explanatory notes, a philosophical supplement, modest production suggestions, a series of hand-drawn diagrams…

[Then came] almost a year of preparation. Reading and rereading the “script,” which, of course, had no dialogue (with the exception of that one whispered “sssh!”); asking Sam a thousand questions, largely by mail and eventually in person at his Montparnasse apartment; trying to visualize graphically and specifically the varied demands of those six tantalizing pages. Gradually, the mysteries and enigmas, common denominators of all new Beckett works, came into focus with fascinatingly simple clarity…”

When it came time to line up the cast, Beckett pushed for Charlie Chaplin, but the actor declined. So Beckett and Schneider turned to an aging Buster Keaton, another Hollywood icon from the silent and sound eras, making him an apt pick for a modern silent film. (Several of Keaton’s early films, along with many Chaplin classics, appear in Open Culture’s list of free movies online.) Scholars and critics have since had a field day trying to interpret the 17-minute film eventually completed in 1965. But when The New Yorker asked Beckett to explain the film in a way that “the man in the street” would understand, the writer offered this:

It’s a movie about the perceiving eye, about the perceived and the perceiver — two aspects of the same man. The perceiver desires like mad to perceive and the perceived tries desperately to hide. Then, in the end, one wins.”

If you’ve never seen footage of Beckett, you can catch the publicity-shy playwright speaking in the American documentary Waiting for Beckett.

Dan Colman edits Open Culture, which brings you the best free educational media available on the web — free online courses, audio books, movies and more. By day, he directs the Continuing Studies Program at Stanford University. You can find Open Culture on Twitter and Facebook

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