I heard about it a few years ago. I think YouTube recommended it to me. Hmm.
If you haven’t heard about it, it was a “psychology experiment” of power and the abuse of it, given the opportunity to do so and get away with it, run by a Psychiatrist in the 70’s. It was supposed to be a ‘simulation’ that would last 2 weeks, enabling the “Doctor” and his team of researchers to study human behaviour in extreme conditions.
A bunch of Uni students were chosen to participate.
Half the group of 20 students were assigned “Prison guards” and given smart uniforms, dark sunglasses and batons to give each “guard” a sense of anonymity and authority. The other 10 were made prisoners. They were stripped, sprayed, jailed and each given a “dress” with a 3 or 4 digit number on it. They were only addressed by their number, no longer by their names. This was to strip them of autonomy and individuality.
After only 6 days the experiment was shut down because it quickly got out of hand. Guards were taking their power over others to cruel and almost evil measures and the prisoners were in extremely high states of emotional, physical, and psychological distress.
A film was released about it on Netflix which I had to walk away from several times this evening, it was so hard to watch.
My heart can’t bear to see others suffer.
My soul can’t operate when someone is in distress because every part of me wants to cuddle and rescue them.
What scares me is that apparently the guards and prisoners were randomly selected. They weren’t inherently “bad” or “good” people, they were all just ‘average students’ – generally pretty good people, all of them.
In the movie, the Psychiatrist leading the entire experiment says something chilling. He says the only difference between the guard physically and emotionally abusing a highly distressed prisoner and the poor prisoner “was just the flip of a coin”. Had the coin flipped the other way, the roles would have been reversed. Would the other guy have been kinder…or worse?
I believe I’m a genuinely kind, caring, warm, sweet, generous person. I believe I would do the right thing, especially when it comes to how I treat others. It’s something I’m secretly quite proud of…that deep down, I would always do what is right.
But would I?
What kind of person would I be if I was put in a position of power? It was bone chilling to see how quickly the guards descended into outright cruelty when it came to the prisoners. It was scary to see how fast the element of power changed ordinary Uni students into cruel bullies that literally put the wellbeing of others in great jeopardy.
I know I’ve been in the “prisoner” role for much of my life; bossed around, told what to do, bowing and scraping, keeping quiet and following someone else’s rules. I wonder if I would have the courage to speak up for myself in a situation like that. I wonder if I could say “No, this isn’t right” or if I could demand my rights when my life is in danger or if I’d allow the situation to overcome me and inevitably kill me.
I would hope I have the strength and integrity to stand up for others. I know I have in the past. I view myself as a nothing…but when it comes to someone else – especially someone who means something to me – then I will take you down in order to protect and defend the people I love. I would hope even an official uniform wouldn’t stop me fighting to defend the innocent. The bullied. The voiceless and defenceless.
In the experiment, it was a Lord of the Flies situation but in a prison setting. Instead of sticking to rules, guards quickly broke them and began assaulting prisoners. This was encouraged by the Doctors/leaders of the experiment. Instead of a clear cut experiment, YouTube showed prisoners suffering terribly…and that suffering began on day one.
Human depravity overcame common decency in a matter of hours. Is that always going to be the case when people are given free reign?
Father God, I pray that no matter what the circumstance, I will always choose kindness. I pray I will choose to be Holy in everything I do. I pray I will have integrity and honour in everything I am in charge of. Please give me wisdom and help me to do whatever Jesus would do – especially when it comes to how I treat others. Amen.