In 1971, a social psychologist called Phillip Zimbardo famously conducted the “Stanford Prison Experiment” (SPE), which aimed to understand how otherwise normal people could be motivated to behave with brutality against their fellow human beings. In Zimbardo’s two-week experiment (which was cancelled after six days), Stanford University students role-played being guards and prisoners, with the “guards” reportedly committing increasingly sadistic and dehumanizing acts on the “prisoners.” The story was powerful and compelling, and there was something instinctively correct about it: “that normal people could be transformed into sadistic tyrants or passive slaves, not because of any inherent personality flaws but through finding themselves in a dehumanising environment: context was king.” (New Scientist)
Zimbardo would later go on to become the bestselling author of The Lucifer Effect (Random House 2007), which effectively promoted the idea that good people could turn bad when corrupted by power. Wedded to this experiment was Zimbardo’s own redemptive retelling, in which he credits his early termination of the experiment to his girlfriend’s horror upon witnessing the sadism of the would-be guards, and his arc of disavowing his own experiment.
The “showbiz” aspect of this study has been one point of contention against Zimbardo’s tightly controlled narrative, which several participants in the SPE, both guards and prisoners, have since contested. Yet the methodological flaws behind the experiment, which detractors have lain at Zimbardo’s feet as early as 1975, are far more serious.
In the first place, the idea that putting people in positions of power or control will naturally lead to them committing cruelty is itself an assumption. The magazine Scientific American reports that in audio tapes of the prisoners receiving instructions from SPE experimenters, the latter “used psychological tactics to persuade reluctant guards to adopt an aggressive style in their interactions with the helpless prisoners. . . . The day before the experiment began, the research team held an orientation for the guards in which they communicated expectations for hostility toward the prisoners. . . . Thus, the language of the leadership team clearly sanctioned abuse among the guards.” (Scientific American)
In other words, cruelty and sadism did not organically develop once the “guards” were put in their position. They had to be persuaded and cajoled by identification with the experimenters’ “higher” or “worthy” goals in order to be motivated to do what Zimbardo wanted.
The SPE’s results were challenged by a separate experiment conducted by Alex Haslam and Stephen Reicher in 2001, who argued that rather than the guards abusing the prisoners because of the power of their roles, “their behavior arose instead from their identification with the experimenters, which Jaffe [Zimbardo’s co-researcher] and Zimbardo encouraged at every turn.” (Medium) It may be more accurate to say that the results did come close to replicating those of the SPE, but through a radically different and more methodologically sound route:
First, participants did not conform automatically to their assigned role. Second, they only acted in terms of group membership to the extent that they actively identified with the group (such that they took on a social identification). Third, group identity did not mean that people simply accepted their assigned position; instead, it empowered them to resist it. Early in the study, the Prisoners’ identification as a group allowed them successfully to challenge the authority of the Guards and create a more egalitarian system. Later on, though, a highly committed group emerged out of dissatisfaction with this system and conspired to create a new hierarchy that was far more draconian. (PLOS)
Despite the SPE being increasingly discredited as a neutral study about the exercise of power and infliction of cruelty (it has been applied to prison reform, criminology, and even the Abu Graib scandal), there is something alluring about it. Perhaps the implication that we are defined totally by context absolves us of moral responsibility and choice. Yet studies correcting the SPE offer a much sounder conclusion about our understanding of power: adopting an authority role or entering a system of coercion is not sufficient to produce cruel behavior.
Indeed, a 2012 paper by Haslam and Reicher and their colleagues noted: “The hallmark of the tyrannical regime was not conformity but creative leadership and engaged followership within a group of true believers . . . the fundamental point is that tyranny does not flourish because perpetrators are helpless and ignorant of their actions. It flourishes because they actively identify with those who promote vicious acts as virtuous.” (PLOS)
At this point, it is increasingly evident that “power” must fundamentally be part of the thinking and discourse of social reformers, activists, and applied philosophers and ethicists. We would go so far as to suggest that developing an ethic of power and the means for deployment is the intellectually responsible and morally necessary thing to do. This is because, in its purest sense, power is simply a force or currency of agency (which allows a person or group of people to do something). It is incumbent on all schools of philosophy, Eastern, Western, or otherwise, to grapple with how best “currencies of agency” can be channeled for the good. Otherwise, those with misguided and even horrific ideas about what is “virtuous,” as seen in the SPE, national socialism, or many other examples, can inflict great damage.
The first few definitions of “power” in the Oxford English Dictionary are listed so: “The ability or capacity to do something or act in a particular way.” “The capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others.” “Political or social authority or control.” When we speak of social justice or liberation for oppressed groups, we talk about “empowerment.” As with everything in life, from finances to relationships, there are skillful and unskillful ways to exercise and manifest power.
The SPE, for its problems, accomplished something of great value: highlighting what can go wrong when those in positions of power have a harmful ideology that is seen as virtuous. What, then, is the right use of power? It should logically be something that takes the pitfalls of ideology very seriously and is careful to be non-dogmatic (Middle Way); awakened leadership, not enforced or artificial, but natural and welcome.
How do leaders and people in positions of power even begin? The tension between “enforcement and cultivation” versus “flow and non-action” is an ancient tension between Confucianism and Daoism. The Buddhist tradition suggests the model of the dhammaraja (king of Dharma), chakravartin (wheel-turning monarch) or sarthavaha (caravan master)—all of which denote some degree of spiritual piety and “inner righteousness” manifesting as “outer exemplarism.”
While few genuine and authentic leaders will claim to be far along this path, the SPE also, through its methodological sloppiness, betrayed an encouraging finding: that two-thirds of the guards never acted sadistically, with the remaining third, as we have explored, having operated under considerable manipulation and encouragement to identify with the goals of the experimenters. (New Scientist)
The key may be to start early, to offer as many examples as possible to people in roles of influence and control on encouraging kindness, solidarity, and community. After all, as many Buddhist leaders have noted through the ages, our inherent nature is Buddha-nature, and deep down, we are luminous, enlightened, and good. It takes considerable conditioning to turn our hearts dark and “evil.” We very, very rarely simply fall into it. When we are shown a clear path away from this conditioning and the means to walk such a path, our exercise of power will not be harmful, but beneficial.
Inside the prison experiment that claimed to show the roots of evil (New Scientist)
Rethinking the Infamous Stanford Prison Experiment (Scientific American)
The Lifespan of a Lie (Medium)
Contesting the “Nature” Of Conformity: What Milgram and Zimbardo’s Studies Really Show (PLOS)