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The Stanford Experiment(PDF) was started in 1971 in the basement of a building on the Stanford University campus. It was part of a study funded by the Navy on anti-social behavior. What happened when guards were given absolute power and the prisoners none was sadly predictable. The experiment had to be cut short because the 'guards' had no controls and were treating the 'prisoners' inhumanely.

Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended prematurely after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress. Please join me on a slide tour describing this experiment and uncovering what it tells us about the nature of human nature.
Findings of the Stanford Experiment. One finding I was interested to see showed that all personalities placed into a position of power can be corrupted:
The most and least abusive guards did not differ significantly in authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, or other personality measures. Abusive guard behavior appears to have been triggered by features of the situation rather than by the personality of guards.
And although the Stanford Experiment has been referred to when normal people do heinous things there is a rich and solid history of being duplicated.

In 2002 the BBC tried to do a reenactment of the Stanford Experiment and that too had to discontinued early.

When the BBC revealed it was to replicate for television the notorious Stanford experiment, when university students were "imprisoned" to study responses to solitude and oppression, executives said that it would not repeat the brutality of the original.

While the BBC version was approached with far more caution than the 1971 model, which was terminated after six days when the participants' behaviour had degenerated, it appears to have met a similar fate.

Scientists overseeing the BBC project became concerned that the 15 participants' emotional and physical wellbeing was in danger of being compromised, and called a halt before it was due to end.

But the Stanford Experiment was not the first attempt to understand why humans act "anti-socially" as the Navy put it. Stanley Milgram wanted to answer the prevailing question of his time. Why did the Germans so blithely and obediently murder millions of people? So he tried to see how a person could be convinced to hurt someone else for the greater good.

Controversy surrounded Stanley Milgram for much of his professional life as a result of a series of experiments on obedience to authority which he conducted at Yale University in 1961-1962. He found, surprisingly, that 65% of his subjects, ordinary residents of New Haven, were willing to give apparently harmful electric shocks-up to 450 volts-to a pitifully protesting victim, simply because a scientific authority commanded them to, and in spite of the fact that the victim did not do anything to deserve such punishment. The victim was, in reality, a good actor who did not actually receive shocks, and this fact was revealed to the subjects at the end of the experiment. But, during the experiment itself, the experience was a powerfully real and gripping one for most participants.
What this tells me is the police we see sadistically brutalizing the citizenry are true believers, convinced they are doing right, and that they are meting out justice. (Meting out justice is not the police officer's job. But that is a subject for an entirely new discussion)
Since the Nazi atrocities toward the Jews were discovered at the end of the World War II, people have wondered how so many could have engaged in such obviously unconscionable behaviors. The death camps in which Jews were systematically tortured and killed were efficiently organized and managed by well-trained administrative personnel. These administrators were not extraordinarily vicious savages running amuck. On the contrary, the Germans who ran the death camps seemed to be ordinary "decent" citizens, with consciences no different from those of any of us. How could they have blinded themselves to the clear injustice of what they were doing? More generally, what motivates the unethical acts of ordinarily decent people?

Perhaps one of the most fascinating experiments ever conducted to investigate this moral question is known as the Milgram experiment, after Stanley Milgram, the psychologist who devised the experiment. Subjects in his experiment were told that they were going to take part in exercises designed to test other people's abilities to learn. They were seated at a mock "shock generator" with thirty switches marked from 15 volts ("slight shock") to 450 volts ("danger--severe shock"). Through a small glass window they could see the "learner" in the adjoining room strapped to a chair with electrodes on his or her wrists. The subject was told he or she was to test the other person's ability to memorize lists of words, and to administer a "shock" when the learner made the mistake, increasing the intensity each time. As the intensity of the "shocks" grew, and the learner pretended to cry out in more and more pain, eventually fainting, the experimenter told the subjects they had to continue administering the shocks. Astonishingly, although the subjects grew nervous and agitated, more than two-thirds administered the highest level of shocks to the learners when ordered to do so by the experimenter. Milgram concluded that when people are ordered to do something by someone they view in authority, most will obey even when doing so violates their consciences.

In view of the Milgram experiments, the Nazi crimes are not difficult to understand. Milgram himself suggested that one of the major factors accounting for the Holocaust was the ready propensity of human beings to obey authorities even when obedience is wrong. Indeed, although Milgram's experiment has been repeated dozens of times with many different groups of people, the results are always the same: most people will obey external authority over the dictates of conscience.

And it isn't just as simple as an automaton following orders. These officers are being convinced somewhere by someone that brutalizing the people that they are supposed to protect is the right thing to do. And that can come from only the top down in the hierarchical structure of the police.
Similarly, the researchers argue, a close look at Milgram’s study suggests it really isn’t about blind obedience at all. Transcripts of the sessions show the participants are often torn by the instruction to administer stronger shocks. Direct orders to do so were far less effective than entreaties that they need to continue for the sake of the study.

These reluctant sadists kept “torturing” in response to appeals that they were doing important scientific work—work that would ultimately benefit mankind. Looked at in this way, it wasn’t some inherent evil or conformism that drove them forward, but rather a misplaced sense of idealism.

This interpretation is still quite unsettling, of course. If a person has has fully bought into a certain world view and believes he or she is acting on the side of right, this conviction “makes them work energetically and creatively to ensure its success,” Haslam and Reicher write.

Rule number 15 of the prisoners rules in the Stanford Experimentis also the rule we as citizens must obey when interacting with police. Is it not?
Prisoners must obey all orders issued by guards
at all times. A guard's order supersedes any
written order. The Warden's order supersedes both
the guards' order and the written rules. Orders
of the Superintendent of Prisoners are supreme.
Hopefully I have established that those in power require controls or they will abuse their power and their authority to the nth degree at a shockingly alarming rate.

So why are we not providing the oversight to prevent this from happening?

Some ideas presented that I find compelling are:
A national registry and certification body for police officers capable of at least preventing suspect officers from having contact with the public but to also be able to proffer criminal charges commiserate with the level of danger to the public a rogue police officer is.

Civilian, independent of law enforcement ties, oversight committees for each department with power to suspend and or terminate officers after proper protocol is observed.

Separation of the Prosecutors office and the police departments in physical as well as operational sense. The conflict of interest is killing our country.

A committee be formed to investigate and eradicate corruption of police departments on a national level to return the profession to an honorable one.

Establishment of a nationwide whistle blowers contact system for officers to safely and anonymously report criminal acts by their peers.

The establishment of laws that contend an officer that has perjured themselves in their reports or on the stand be permanently banned from providing testimony, witness statements or duty reports of any kind.

That all officers be required to carry on their person and operational and unobstructed at all times video and audio recording devices. These devices are to beep loudly and annoyingly if obstructed or disabled while the officer is on duty to advise the public that the officer is no longer complying with citizen protections.

Any officer that obstructs or harasses a citizen photographing or otherwise recording officers engaged in duties will be guilty of felony evidence tampering.

There are more ideas I'd like to discuss regarding weaponry. But regarding use of force itself. There are already rules, laws, and statutes in place these officers were trained to obey and are choosing not to. Just as the prosecutors and judges are allowing them to perjure themselves.

Originally posted to Police Accountability Group on Fri Feb 22, 2013 at 09:14 AM PST.

Also republished by The Fourth Estate.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Good ideas all. (7+ / 0-)

    If an officer purjures him or herself they should be fired, prosecuted and banned from police work.  Period.

    •  I agree and I also believe that (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Horace Boothroyd III

      high stress level vocations should maintain schedules much like EMT's and firefighters....working maybe three days and having five days off.  This is a little off topic, but I've always wondered why ER doctors and nurses work ridiculous shifts.  Here is a person whose been dealing with bloody body parts and life threatening stuff for the last 17 hours and they are left to care for us in an exhausted and overwhelmed state.  A recipe for disaster.

  •  I watched 5 Broken Cameras last night on Netflix (3+ / 0-)

    The power of camera was quite evident. I hope it wins an award causing  more people to take a look and give those 5 broken cameras even more power.

    Some people have short memories

    by lenzy1000 on Fri Feb 22, 2013 at 09:34:45 AM PST

  •  To exact obedience is inherently abusive. (2+ / 0-)

    So the culture of obedience in our law enforcement agencies, perhaps because they fail to transmit the reality that the citizens are the ultimate authority, fosters abusive behavior towards others, since they can't resist the internal hierarchy with jeopardy to themselve.
    Abuse gets transmitted from population to population because people do unto others as was done to them. If total obedience is exacted from officers, then they exact it from whomever they consider to be subordinate to them.
    Referring to citizens as customers doesn't help. It perpetrates the notion that citizens are being served; that the officers are being protective and, by God, the customers had better be grateful.

    Yes, German society had exacting obedience down pat. What is perhaps particularly telling is that the survivors of the torture were not successful in stopping it from being passed on to the Palestinians in Israel. I think what happens is that the survivors of abuse convince themselves that the torture was somehow good for them and made them stronger and more virtuous persons. And, if that's true, what's the harm in passing it on?
    Discipline.  If persons do not exercise self-discipline, it has to be applied to them. Sacrifice is good. The Bible tells me so.

    We organize governments to deliver services and prevent abuse.

    by hannah on Fri Feb 22, 2013 at 01:23:27 PM PST

  •  If you look at what happened to Bradley (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Horace Boothroyd III

    Manning it would appear that his guards did much the same to him at Quantico. I would very much have liked it if his lawyers had appealed his treatment before that in Kuwait IIRC.

    American Television is a vast sea of stupid. -xxdr zombiexx

    by glitterscale on Fri Feb 22, 2013 at 03:43:53 PM PST

  •  If I could rec (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Horace Boothroyd III

    this diary 20x I would.  The crap that gets shoveled to us regularly by what passes for "cops" in my neck of the woods is staggering.  And it goes all the way to the sheriff's office.  There is no regard for protecting the law abiding citizens, and there is no accountability.  Ever.  
    Please sign and share.  Thanks.  

  •  Improving police (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Horace Boothroyd III

    The proper policing of a democracy is best undertaken by men and women who are formally educated, carefully selected, well-trained, expected to control their use of force, be honest in their actions, reports and court testimony, courteous to every person regardless of their station in life, led by mature, collaborative leaders, and closely in touch with the communities they serve. For more, follow my blog at

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