The Stanford Prison Experiment

In the spirit of spontaneity, as below, I undertook an impulsive approach to research this morning. Visiting Camberwell to collect something briefly, I decided to look at the CD section of the charity shops on my way to college and select the first album that stood out to me: a self-titled album by California pop-punk band Stanford Prison Experiment, named after an experiment conducted by psychologist Philip Zimbardo in 1971 to investigate the psychological effects of perceived power, focusing on the struggle between prisoners and prison guards, and named as such after the band’s lead saw a video of the experiment while working in the audiovisual department of UCLA.

 

Immediate thought jumps to the strange, once-removed nature of namesake projects such as this, and the relationship between the experiment and the final product, and so continued the happenstance research into the original, leading first to this documentary video.

This short documentary shows Limbardo explaining the orchestration of a mock prisoner / guard situation in the basement of the university, and the construction of a strange, almost clichéd guard character — complete with mirrored aviators — that would seem ridiculous in even a narrative movie.

The video touches on the well-known Milgram experiment on obedience to authority, which saw participants willing to put others in pain when commanded — or have responsibility taken away from them — by a figure of authority. The Stanford experiment looked further into the acquisition of roles, an idea set up by the Milgram experiment’s teacher-pupil set up, whereby those in positions of power and authority — the guards— independently came to behave in ways that would humiliate and dehumanise those in the prisoner role. Interestingly it also touches on the separate but connected role of those involved AS participants, subjects with independent thought acknowledging their part in the system the experiment had fabricated, and indeed that it WAS a fabrication, and how they used this as a means of manipulating factors to achieve a desired, or perceived desired, outcome.

Obviously intended as a microcosm of wider societal power structures, the latter point — of participants knowledge and even acknowledgement of the existence and make up of particular structures, and the part they play in those structures — is vital when considering something like a catalyst for change. It reminds me of a point made in conversation between documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis and comedian Russell Brand in a podcast last week, that the mass population simply don’t have time outside of work, family commitments, to educate themselves as to the position they find themselves in. A similar point to one i highlighted recently by Susan Sontag about the philistinism of wider society. The message from Curtis, one mentioned numerous times during this and other conversations, was that it was the journalist or documentary filmmaker’s job to consume this information, and distil it into a digestible narrative. By doing so, and by making it entertaining, the audience would be more willing to watch, engage and even consider things much more complex or even horrific than they would any other way.

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