Both famous and infamous, a 1971 Stanford University experiment recreated the conditions of prison life with volunteers role-playing both inmates and guards. Shockingly, but perhaps not unsurprisingly, when the guards were allowed to brutalize the prisoners things pretty much spun out of control. After six days they had to shut the whole thing down before somebody got hurt.
The movie, released this summer, presents a dramatization of events at the mock prison. But this is far from the first film about the grisly academic affair. There have been a number of documentaries including one by the university.
Nor was Stanford’s prison experiment the first time serious science went pyscho. The “obedience experiments” by Yale scientist Stanley Milgram were even more infamous. The tests, which began in 1961, measured whether subjects could be induced to give a lethal electrical shock to innocent people just because an authority figure said it was alright.
Eventually, even the Ivory Tower figured out conducting human experiments that intentionally inflicted turmoil and anguish might be a bit shady. Research institutions adopted institutional review boards to determine whether research was ethical—before the experiment started.
Given that we know what happens when these things go haywire, it is doubly shocking that modern abuses, such as were inflicted at Abu Ghraib, are ever allowed to happen. How could the Army be so dumb as not to recognize the potential for a toxic environment and not provide more stringent oversight?
Such lessons are worth remembering. When we act inhuman to humans, inhumanity often results.
There is a reason the U.S. Senate just voted to ban torture, even though torture is already against the law. Senators want to again make the statement that no matter how brutal our enemies are, we don’t defeat them by joining them.
Conversely, don’t expect those who act inhumanely to act human just because we treat them nice. So, it is also not surprising that Congress just held a hearing lambasting the administration for its anti-ISIS strategy. Obama’s secretary of State may have thought it’s a good idea to emphasize with our enemies. Most realists think that’s a dead-end idea. They would prefer we defeat our enemies rather than coddle them. We can act humanely and also be mean and win wars.
In the end, this film about the Stanford experiment reminds us that humans act human.
Let’s confine the horror of inhumanity to stomach-churning films like Hostel, and then let’s just skip those movies.