Stanford Prison Experiment, Milgram Experiment
Shocking Experiments Reveal Thin Line Between Victim, Perpetrator
"If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds,
and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"
~~ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
It's very easy to blame others for all of our problems. It's easy to accuse the evil terrorists or the corrupt rulers of our world for creating all the problems we have to deal with both individually and collectively. Yet how would you react if put in stressful conditions with intense social and authoritative pressure to behave in ways that go against your own ethics and morals?
Both the Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison experiment were designed to explore this probing question. Dr. Stanley Milgram designed an experiment where normal individuals were asked by a researcher to give increasingly intense electric shocks to a subject each time they gave the wrong answer to a question. The highest level of shock had the potential of killing the subject. How far would volunteers go when told by a researcher that they should administer these intense shocks? Watch the six-minute ABC News clip below to find out.
Milgram Experiment Video
If you are interested in a longer, more in-depth documentary on a 2009 re-creation of this landmark human behavior study, click here. This BBC production is 20-minutes in length.
As a second example, Dr. Philip Zimbardo designed the Stanford prison experiment to explore what would happen to normal college students when arbitrarily assigned to roles of prisoner and guard in a real life prison simulation done in the basement of Stanford University's psychology department. The students were paid to take on these roles for two weeks as a study of human behavior. How much would they actually conform to their assigned roles of prisoners and guards? Watch the eye-opening, 30-minute BBC documentary below to find out.
Stanford Prison Experiment Video
Both Dr. Zimbardo and Dr. Milgram were quite surprised and disturbed by the results of their experiments. The Stanford prison experiment had to be stopped a full week early as the guards were becoming excessively brutal and even the experiment administrators were losing their objectivity. These two landmark studies have raised many questions for both researchers and all who have learned of these human experiments.
What Would You Do?
After seeing how easily most people can be influenced by authority to commit acts very much against their ethics, an important question arises. What would you have done if you were instructed by a researcher to give possibly lethal electric shocks to the subject of a study? What would you have done if you were assigned to the role of a prisoner in the prison experiment? Or to the role of a guard? As a guard, would you have told the other brutal guard to stop? Would you have questioned the experiment or the experimenters in either of these behavioral experiments?
Our society has a strong tendency to identify with the victim and condemn the abuser. Yet how much is the abuser a victim of circumstances? How much is the oppressive behavior of the power elite of our world shaped by the conditions and social pressures into which they are born and raised? Clearly under intensely stressful conditions, we all have the propensity to become the abuser. Any of us might become the victim or even the perpetrator if the conditions were intense enough. This is the dark shadow within that most people would rather avoid.
Yet could it be our very avoidance of looking at shadows within ourselves and the shadows in our world that allow these disturbing tendencies to grow and fester? By instead choosing to shine light on the shadow places both in ourselves and in the world, we can learn from our weaknesses. Even after just the act of watching these videos, we can each decide not to be swayed by authority and to stand up when we see injustices committed. We can further choose to explore the shadows both within ourselves and in the world in order to avoid being the victim or perpetrator.
By choosing to understand both the light and the shadow inside of ourselves and in human behavior, we can become exceptions in the above experiments who say no and do not submit to oppressive authority. We can make up our mind now to not give in to the pressures of authority when we feel that doing so would go against our values and beliefs. When we are clear on our priorities and understand both our shadows and our light, we can take the power and authority into our own hands and set a positive example for ourselves and all around us.
Could it be that the line dividing good and evil truly cuts through each one of our hearts? What might happen if instead of punishing the perpetrators and locking them up into institutions which foster more violence, we focused on understanding what causes people to commit violence? What if we worked to stop the destructive behavior while at the same time nurturing the good in the heart of the perpetrator. What if we focused more on changing the underlying conditions which lead to violence?
Our Better Side
Though these two landmark experiments present some disturbing conclusions about the human condition, remember that the opposite of these conclusions is equally true. When put in caring, supportive environments, the vast majority of people will flourish and have a wonderful, positive impact on people and the world around them. Two of the most amazing videos ever produced demonstrate this in a way that is guaranteed to inspire.
The first 15-minute video presents Challenge Day, an incredibly transformative program in which teens come to understand how they hurt each other and, more importantly, how they can come together to help each other make a difference. Don't miss this Emmy-awarding winning program.
The second video (also 15 minutes) shows how one man, faced with challenges far greater than most of us will ever experience, is able to be a powerfully creative force in our world.
All these videos show not that humans are inherently bad or evil, nor that we are inherently good. They show that when we are not clear in our own priorities and intentions, and when we give too much power to authority, we can be manipulated and controlled in ways that do not serve anyone. They also show that when we understand ourselves and make a choice to be aware of our weaknesses, yet focus on building our strengths, we can be a positive force in building a better world for all of us. Together, we can and will build a brighter future. Thanks for caring.
Special Note: For a rich, inspiring online lesson delving further into these matters, see lesson 20 of the profound Insight Course, titled "Beyond Duality," at this link. I also invite you to explore the entire heart and mind expanding Insight Course, which beautifully explores and interweaves the shadow and the light with the intention of empowering you to make a difference in your life and in our world.
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