Kids who are mean grow up to be mean adults. Being mean becomes one’s identity. Once we define ourselves as such, it dominates and directs who we are and what we do or how we act. The roles we play hardwire our brain cells and determine future behaviors. Once an act or behavior is a habit, we are fighting some very powerful forces of nature which is why I insist on programs of prevention such as I Believe I Can Fly! It is the only way we are going to stop the cycles of violence.
The Stanford Prison Experiment
The Stanford Prison Experiment conducted in 1971 gives credence to the importance of role-playing as a powerful tool for prevention and correction. A mock correctional facility was created in the basement of one of the campus buildings where 24 mainly white middle class males became guards and prisoners. To follow is a report that reveals why good people are capable of doing bad things. The study shows a degeneration and breakdown of the established rules and morals dictating exactly how people should behave toward each. It also illustrates the darkness that inhabits the human psyche.
Emotionally healthy college students selected for the study were put into predefined roles as prison guards or convicts and thus acted as they thought that role required them to be, rather than using their own judgment and morals. When one puts on a “uniform” and assumes a role, I believe it allows them to be detached from who they are and thus relieves them of all responsibility and accountability for their social behaviors.
Also learned in the experiment was how one behaves when one’s dignity and individuality are totally controlled by others. The guards were outfitted in military-style intimidating uniforms and were equipped with wooden batons and mirrored shades to prevent eye-contact, making the guards less human. The only rule was that there could be no physical punishment, but otherwise they could run the prison as they saw fit. The prisoners were instructed to wait at their homes. Their homes were raided without warning and they were then arrested by real police officers who took them into custody. They were read their rights, had mug shots and fingerprints taken, and then were given cheap smocks, an ankle chain, allowed no underwear, and given an assigned number as their only identity. Conditions were tough, with only basic sleeping mattresses and plain food provided.
Your Moral Compass: Doing the Right Thing
Suffering from a wide array of humiliations and punishments imposed by the guards, prisoners began to show signs of mental and emotional distress. On the second day of the experiment, the prisoners organized a mass revolt and riot that was squelched with fire-extinguishers and increased humiliation such as stripping the prisoners, forcing them to sleep on the cold, hard floors, intimidating them during roll calls and denying bathroom privileges. They were forced to clean the toilets with their bare hands, and forced exercise and physical punishments became more common. One-third of the guards became extremely sadistic causing high levels of emotional distress such that two of the prisoners had to be removed.
The fact that the prisoners quickly became institutionalized and adapted to their roles brings up a serious concern of our correctional system. Even when told they would be denied their participation payment if they did not quit, none of the prisoners wanted to quit their roles. As an attempt for early release, the replacement prisoner was instructed to go on a hunger strike as a protest of the treatment to his fellow inmates. Surprisingly, his fellow inmates viewed him as a troublemaker rather than a fellow victim trying to help them. The two-week experiment was aborted after six days when on outsider was brought in to interview guards and prisoners and was shocked by the scenes she witnessed. Out of fifty external visitors, the woman was the only one to raise concerns about what was happening. The visitors truly were passive bystanders. When we upgrade the bystanders to upstanders, we will see a social shift.
We all admire the heroic actions of the crew and passengers on United Flight 93 who took charge of their destiny and protected the lives of hundreds of others by doing the right thing and what was necessary. May we live by those famous last words, “Are you ready? Let’s Roll!”