November 6, 2011 reading group – Phillip Zimbardo and the Stanford Prison Study
Zimbardo’s famous prison study, in which a handful of college students assumed for what was planned to be two weeks the roles of prisoners and prison guards, is well-known to students of psychology and other fields. What is remarkable about the study is the readiness with which the volunteering participants accepted their roles; after the reading of it, the group’s discussion focused primarily on the ways the Occupy movements mirror the psychology explored by Zimbardo of the powerful domineering over the powerless.
Over the course of the discussion, the experiment and its participants became metaphors for the Occupy movement. More or less, the prison guards might be made up of the news media and institutions of physical power such as the police. Under the employ of the 1%, who might be seen as the prison wardens (an analogy of my own making), these forces seek to control the 99%, or the prisoners, through various methods.
Around fifteen people met to discuss the text, and there was a healthy mix of old and new faces and younger and older participants. In fact, the age split was almost even, and this became something of a factor as the discussion veered toward the use of force and its effect on radical movements of the 60s and 70s. Kent State in particular was highlighted, with some Occupiers thinking the force on display there – the slaughter of four college students – was a spark for student activism, while a more cynical attitude maintained that, no, the use of force was the death knell for real activism in America and convinced most people that it might be better to just stay home and avoid police brutality altogether.
These displays of force are intended to fracture dissenters. We discussed how there are “good” and “bad” prisoners just as there are “good” and “bad” occupiers, with police even telling the “good” occupiers things like, “It’s a shame there’s a handful of people ruining it for the rest of you.” Precisely the same tactic was on display in the Zimbardo study, with all but one of the prisoners joining in a chorus to condemn the ostracized (who broke down as a result). Optimistically, the group seemed to feel generally that the Occupy movement enjoyed a kind of solidarity that wasn’t being broken up or endangered by the tactics of our collective enemies.
Newcomer (at least to my eyes) Marcella also introduced the concept of “food independence”, stating that this was a significant factor in the success of other movements, including those that helped end apartheid in South Africa. It encourages solidarity and with that one base need satisfied, people are freed from many potentially hazardous biological impulses, like theft.
Power’s dependence on the willingness of those it dominates to accept it is an important philosophical concept, one which I raised in the discussion and one which is not treated lightly in Zimbardo’s write-up. The most powerful form of the concept, which might state that power only exists if its authority is granted, was met with some resistance. And, obviously, in our situation as in the prison study, there is merit to this idea. Occupiers, for one thing, do not have tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, Humvees, tear gas, rubber bullets, riot gear, clubs and batons, and other weapons designed for physical control and domination, nor do we have the legal protection and other blessings. However, I maintain that it is important to recognize power’s dependence on what in the Declaration of Independence is termed “consent of the governed”. If we simply ignore their authority, and ridicule it, and treat it with the contempt it deserves, we will come a long way toward extinguishing it. There may be blood. But as Zimbardo himself writes, “You cannot be a prisoner if no one will be your guard, and you cannot be a prison guard if no one takes you or your prison seriously.”