The human mind is the most formidable, self-sufficient, independent and thought-provoking entity there is. Psychologists and psychiatrists have spent countless hours trying to understand the behavioural patterns exhibited by human beings under different conditions; widening their horizons one bit at a time. But the human mind having the depth and void of the universe, has time and again taken the entire medical fraternity by surprise.
One such study was conducted in 1971 at the Stanford University under the supervision of Dr Philip Zimbardo. The procedure was simple; random college students were interviewed and were asked whether they would like to become prisoners or guards. Volunteers were then given an opportunity of joining a mock prison; with Dr. Zimbardo himself being the superintendent. The study in the experimental penitentiary began, which led to one of the most interesting behavioural characteristics exhibited by humans.
A few days into the experiment, the guards became exponentially more dominating in nature, and the prisoners, submissive. While the predictability of this wasn’t ruled out, what took the team of observers by surprise was the sheer brutality of it.
The replica of the penitentiary was considered an important driving factor for the resulting behaviour. The guards wore black sunglasses, which prevented them from making eye contact with the prisoners. The prisoners were only addressed with their “numbers”, which the guards made them shout out repeatedly like clockwork, until a point where the prisoners started having an identity crisis. The overtly dominating behaviour of the guards started spiralling out of control as they “exercised” their authority over the prisoners, all of it being witnessed by Dr. Zimbardo.
The initially planned 14-day prison simulation was ultimately called off in just six days which led to conclusive evidence that has helped design modern day penitentiaries. To me, the most hauntingly interesting conclusion drawn from the experiment was the ‘power of authority’. The posts of prisoners and guards in the experiment were randomly allocated to the students based on a coin-toss. This means that the guards who exhibited dominance did it merely because they were “given the opportunity” to.
On the other hand, the randomly allocated prisoners who rebelled initially were later thrown into solitary confinement. The sudden isolation led to the mental breakdown of two of such prisoners who had to be “discharged” from the experiment. An interesting showcase of hierarchy was seen in the mock prison. The guards, because of their authoritarian and dominating nature were found to be at the apex; while the prisoners suffered from such mental torment, that they automatically started considering themselves lower.
The behavioural traits deduced from this experiment resonate to a great extent with the harsh realities that our minds are capable of if given the authoritarian chance and opportunity. We are all honest, believe in equality, responsibility and cognizance on our part. It is only until the point where we are given slight leverage over anyone weak, that we would tap into those corners and crevices of our cranium that we thought were inaccessible. The result in that case, would be as baffling as we’d expect it to be.