what the stanford prison experiment can teach us about abu ghraib

The other story, which was very moving, this couple comes out after seeing their son, and he’s in really bad shape. And the mother begins right off: “I don’t mean to make trouble, sir”—that’s the other thing, the “sir.” You see, usually they’d say “doctor” or “professor,” but “sir”—“but I’ve never seen my son looking so bad.” As soon as you say, “I don’t mean to make trouble,” a red light goes on in my head. She’s going make trouble. So she’s trouble—not to the experiment, to the prison. And so I say, “What seems to be your son’s problem?”

BLVR: Your son’s problem.

PZ: Yes, right, so here the whole experiment is about the power of the situation over the dispositional personal attributions. She’s saying, “There’s something bad about this situation.” As an administrator, I’m saying: “What’s wrong with your kid?” She says, “Well, he doesn’t sleep.” I said, “Does he have insomnia?” So I’m putting the problem onto him, not the situation. And she says, “No, no, they wake them up every few hours.” And I said, “Oh, that, that’s called the counts.” I run through this whole thing, and I tell her why it’s essential, and the husband’s just sitting there, real quiet and really upset because his wife is challenging authority. She says again, “I don’t mean to make trouble.” And so I think… she’s going to blow the whistle. And automatically, I did something which is so horrific, against all my values, I just turn to the father and say, “Don’t you think your boy can handle a little stress?”

BLVR: Wow, so that he’ll…

PZ: What’s he going to say? “My boy’s a sissy?” He’s gotta say, “Of course. He’s a tough guy, he’s a leader.” Essentially what I’m doing is saying, “Here’s this woman who’s soft. And we men have to stick together.” And yes: What does it say about your son, and therefore what does it say about his father? I mean, you want to say that your son is a sissy? He can’t handle it? But it was automatic. It wasn’t a strategic thing. This is instantaneous. We have all that knowledge stored. So we did the handshake thing. The son breaks down that night and the next day I get a letter—I think I have it in the book—I get a letter the next day from the mother saying, “Thank you very much, it’s really very interesting, I’m still concerned about my son.” Meanwhile, he had broken down. So she was right on.

- An Interview with Philip Zimbardo (Conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment)