The Milgram & Stanford Prison Experiments and Why You Should Know About Them

Our journey through the depths of the human sub-conscious will take us through two of possibly the most disturbing social sciences experiments of the 20th century. In essence, their implications are reminders to society that as humans, we are all susceptible to committing cruel and callous acts against others under the influence of authority figures. The experiments shine a bright light of psychological understanding on historic atrocities such as the Holocaust, but they also warn us of dark days to come if their significance isn’t appreciated.

The Milgram experiments were conducted in 1961 wherein ordinary citizens were asked to “… help us complete a scientific study on memory and learning,” and were told, “We will pay you four dollars for one hour of your time.” The real motivations for the experiments remained unknown to the participants so as not to influence the result. The experiment consisted of a supervisor (a researcher), a teacher (one of the volunteers) and a learner (a railroad auditor) who was in on the experiment. The learner was supposed to remember a list of words read out by the teacher as a form of memory testing, but each time the learner got an answer wrong, the teacher would shock him. The teacher was told to increase the intensity of the shock each time and that this “punishment”, as it were, was supposed to help improve the learner’s memory.

The shocks ranged from “Light Shock” all the way up to “Danger: Severe Shock” which was 450-volts. In general, 60-65% of the participants went all the way up to 450 volts. Most protested when hearing the learner’s apparent cries for help and anguished screams but they continued under the pressure of the researcher. In fact, the learner even mentioned that he had a heart condition before the experiments began and yet, the majority of the participants administered what they thought to be a probably lethal dose of electricity. Of course, the learner was not actually being shocked, the screams were pre-recorded and played to match the shock intensity.

Drawing inspiration from this, Philip Zimbardo, a now-famous psychologist and professor, conducted the Stanford Prison Experiments in 1971 and found some more chilling evidence as to the flexibility of our morals. The controversial experiment is even more famous than the Milgram Obedience Experiment and spoke a lot about how humans alter their morals to fit specific roles (in this case, prison guards). The participants were middle-class college students who were deemed “normal” after answering a questionnaire pertaining to their social behaviours, family background and physical and mental health. They were divided into two groups, prisoners and guards, by the toss of a coin. The guards were told to keep order and to run the prison as they deemed fit. The experiment, which was meant to last for two weeks, was called off after just six days due to extreme mental, psychological and even slight physical oppression of the guards done unto the prisoners.

The Stanford experiment differs slightly in its outcome to that of Milgram’s as it mostly highlights our inclination to act according to expectations as opposed to simply obeying orders and shirking responsibility. Zimbardo showed us that when people are given a certain role (be it prison guard or interrogator or whatever), they are often willing to sacrifice their morals and values in order to play the role that is required–that is expected of them. Zimbardo’s study shows us, that as a society, we need to carefully examine the expectations set forth in all societal positions where one person has authority to exert physical and psychological oppression over another.

We need detailed public discourse on what we expect from the roles of prison guards, from police officers (did someone say police brutality?) and others in roles of authority. If they believe they are supposed to oppress subjects in order to do their jobs effectively, there’s no saying where they will stop to achieve this outcome. And anyone is prone to this; we are all guilty of letting our moral boundaries be tested. When we have safety in numbers though, when a rising number of individuals who play the same role begin to do the same, the standard for inhumane punishment begins a slow and steady downfall into dystopia. The collective sub-conscious of the group is altered and new, harsher expectations for the role are moulded.

Unfortunately, its not just the sneaky, sub-conscious lowering of collective moral standards that we need to worry about. It’s also a conscious lowering of individual moral standards that the Milgram experiment warns us of. Authority figures wield an unparalleled ability to manifest cruel and callous acts of violence upon others by exercising their authority on ordinary individuals. With the number of radical right-wing representatives being elected into office around the world increasing, we may find it useful to bear these two experiments in mind.

And I get it, most of you reading this will probably be like, “Oh, that won’t happen to me” or “This isn’t relevant anymore; society has progressed, we have human rights.” But ask yourself this: why is it that there are about 30 million slaves in the world today? Not underpaid factory workers and such, like actual slaves that’ll be murdered by their captors if they leave. And yes, even in the US and UK (in smaller numbers). Why are human rights as malleable as our morals?

I fear that we may have to prepare ourselves for situations where our morals and humanity will be at stake, situations that could lead to another attempted holocaust or ethnic cleansing. Because a wise man once said, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” – Karl Marx.

Written by Milan Sokolovski.