Appendix 39g - Authority

by Michael Greger, MD and United Progressive Alumni

[ Medical School Resources | Appendices | Discussion ]

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world.[455] The increased number of mental patients found in jails actually is said to make Los Angeles County jail America's "largest mental hospital."[456] One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest dramatized the situation.

The psychiatric community's response to the movie's release was predictable. "That movie has set psychiatry back at least twenty-five years," one psychiatrist writes. He hastens to add, however, that although society's savagery towards the mentally ill persists, society is even more cruel towards its criminal prisoners where, "not a one is being treated as a human being, let alone a patient."[457]

Power takes as ingratitude the writhing of its victims - Rabindranath Tagore

Zimbardo himself pioneered another famous experiment with haunting resonance for medical students. In addition to studying the behavior of people at the hands of authority, this study looked at how people act when they themselves were placed in positions of authority. It started with an ad in the newspaper. "Male college students needed for psychological study of prison life. $15 per day for 1-2 weeks...." Half of the volunteers were randomly assigned (coin toss] to play the role of guards, the others of prisoners.

Those assigned as prisoners were actually taken from their homes by police, charged with a felony, warned of their constitutional rights, spread-eagled against the car, searched, handcuffed and carted off in the back seat of a squad car to an actual police station for booking. They were then fingerprinted, stripped, deloused and issued a uniform and taken blindfolded to the windowless "Stanford County Prison," constructed in the basement of Stanford University's psychology building. Although initially warned that as prisoners their privacy and other civil rights would be violated and that they may be subject to harassment, every subject was completely confident of his ability to endure whatever the prison had to offer for the full two weeks.


We promoted anonymity to minimize each prisoner's sense of uniqueness and prior identity. The prisoners wore smocks and nylon stocking caps; they had to use their ID numbers; their personal effects were removed and they were housed in barren cells.... The guards were also 'deindividualized.' They wore identical khaki uniforms and silver reflector sunglasses.... Their symbols of power were billy clubs, whistles, handcuffs....

Over time a perverted symbiotic relationship developed. As the guards became more aggressive, prisoners became more passive; assertion by the guards led to dependency in the prisoners; self-aggrandizement was met with self-deprecation, authority with helplessness, and the counterpart of the guards' sense of mastery and control was the depression and hopelessness witnessed in the prisoners.... Guard M: 'I was surprised at myself.... I made them call each other names and clean the toilets out with their bare hands. I practically considered the prisoners' cattle'.... [Guard A:] 'I watched them tear at each other on orders given by us. They didn't see it as an experiment. It was real and they were fighting to keep their identity. But we were always there to show them who was boss.'

In less than 36 hours, we were forced to release prisoner 8612 because of extreme depression, disorganized thinking, uncontrollable crying and fits of rage. We did so reluctantly because we believed he was trying to 'con' us - it was unimaginable that a volunteer prisoner in a mock prison could legitimately be suffering and disturbed to that extent. But then on each of the next three days another prisoner reacted with similar anxiety symptoms and we were forced to terminate them, too....

One should neither submit to nor exercise power over others - Howard J. Ehrlich

A continuation of the account published in the New York Times Magazine:

If the authoritarian situation became a serious matter for the prisoners, it became even more serious - and sinister - for the guards. Typically the guards insulted the prisoners, threatened them, were physically aggressive, used instruments (night sticks, fire extinguishers, etc.) to keep prisoners in line and referred to them in impersonal anonymous, deprecating ways.... No guard ever intervened on behalf of the prisoners, ever interfered with the orders of the cruelest guards or ever openly complained about the subhuman quality of life that characterized this prison.... Many of them reported... being delighted in the new-found power and control they exercised and sorry to see it relinquished at the end of the study.[458]

Perhaps the most devastating impact of the more hostile guards was their creation of a capricious, arbitrary environment.... When our mock prisoners asked questions, they got answers about half the time, but the rest of the time they were insulted or punished.... There was a general decrease in all categories of response as they learned the safest strategy to use in an unpredictable, threatening environment... do nothing except what is required. Act not, want not, feel not and you will not get into trouble in prison-like situations.

Yes, I know how they feel. I can empathize with the guards too:

What made the experience most depressing for me was the fact that we were continually called upon to act in a way that just was contrary to what I really feel inside... and to continually keep up and put on a face like that is really one of the most oppressive things you can do. It's almost like a prison that you create yourself - you get into it, and it becomes almost the definition you make of yourself, it almost becomes like walls, and you want to break out and you want just to be able to tell everyone that this isn't really me at all... and I do have my own will....

The planned two week simulation was aborted after only six days. The obvious conclusion:

[If] educated young men could be so radically transformed in so short a time without the excesses that are possible in real prisons, and if it could happen to the 'cream-of-the-crop of American youth,' then one can only shudder to imagine what society is doing both to the actual guards and prisoners who are at this very moment participating in that unnatural 'social experiment.'

Zimbardo's Stanford Prison experiment begs the question, "To what extent do we all allow ourselves to become imprisoned by docilely accepting the roles others assign?"


 [455] Woolhandler, S and DU Himmelstein. For Our Patients, Not for Profits Center for National Health Program Studies: Cambridge, 1998:24.

[456] Fleck, S. "Dehumanizing Developments in American Psychiatry in Recent Decades." Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 183(1995):195.

[457] Crawshaw, R. "The New Hypocrisy." The Pharos 1976(January):26-28.

[458] Zimbardo, PG, et al. "A Pirandellian Prison." New York Times Magazine 8 April 1973:38-59.

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