Have you heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment? I didn’t until Tim Ferriss interviewed Philip Zimbardo about evil and his experiment in 1971. It was a test to investigate the psychological effects of perceived power. He took 24 male college students, randomly assigned 12 of them as guards, and the others as inmates in a mock prison. It was supposed to run for six weeks.
It was shut down in 6 days.
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?
Jeremiah 17:9 KJV
While I listened to his findings, Bible verses were popping in my head. I wanted to explore it further. Especially the effect being put in a power position had on the guards.
Power Corrupts, Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely
On day one, the prisoners got tired of the night shift guards’ whistles and forced push-ups. They retaliated the next day by rebelling and barricading themselves in their cells. Day shift’s guards had to respond.
They broke into the cells, stripped the prisoners, removed their beds, and threw the leaders into solitary. Then, in general, began to harass and intimidate prisoners.
They moved up to psychologically controlling tactics. This broke the solidarity of the prisoners and formed an ‘us versus them’ mentality in the guards. They controlled all behavior on a whim, even when they could go to the bathroom.
It eventually broke one ‘prisoner’. The experiment even had the professor and his team thinking more like prison officials than scientists. They thought the disturbed man was trying to con them so he can get out of ‘prison’ early.
Spiraling Deeper Down The Rabbit Hole
On visiting day, the professor and crew manipulated the experiment to trick the men’s parents and friends that everything was okay. The also enforced arbitrary rules on them as well. They complained but went along with it. When they saw their loved ones, they complained about how bad they looked. The professor, fully into his role, blamed the prisoners for being weak.
When rumor of a prison break spread, rather than observing it, they set a trap. When it didn’t happen, they and the guards wanted revenge for having to go through the effort.
The guards escalated the harassment with duties like forcing the prisoners to do repetitive work like cleaning the toilets with only their hands. They made them do push-ups, jumping jacks, and whatever else they could think of to make them miserable. When a chaplain visited, the prisoners were so dehumanized that they only introduced themselves by their inmate number.
It was then that a third ‘prisoner’ had a breakdown and was released. Even during the parole hearings, the volunteer who was head of the parole board forgot it was an experiment and became authoritarian. When it was over, he was disgusted at who he’d become.
Time To Pull The Plug
It ended early when the researchers realized that the night shift guards were escalating abuse of the prisoners out of boredom. They didn’t know it was all being taped. The second nail in its coffin was when a volunteer saw the experiment for the first time and had the moral fortitude to question its morality. She was the only one out of 50+ people to do so.
What’s This Have To Do With Christianity?
The professor wrote a book called The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. He took good college kids with no sadistic tendencies and put them in a situation where they could be. And a few did. The Bible recognizes our tendency to do evil (Psalm 14:2-4). Jesus said that no one is good, except God (Luke 18:19).
The infamous Milgram Experiment is a good example. 65% of the subjects were willing to deliver a lethal dose of electricity to another person in the experiment. All of them went over 300 volts. This shows the ease with which we’ll set our moral codes aside.
In these cases, the ones abused were depersonalized, and due to that, easier to hurt. It’s called “othering”, not my group, lesser so, therefore, less valuable.
What’s Jesus Have To Say About It?
This shows the power in Jesus telling us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Applying that guards against dehumanizing others. Zimbardo writes, “evil consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize, or destroy others; or using one’s authority and systematic power to encourage or permit others to do so on your behalf.”
Situations and systems can make it easy to push the moral boundaries, “No one’s watching” in the case of the night guards. Or “Policy says that…” allows other transgressions because it’s the system doing it, not them.
This is the brilliance in Jesus’ teaching, His half-brother James wrote, “but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters.” (James 1:14-16)
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us to cut it off at the desires’ conception. Matthew 5:21 says don’t murder. Duh. Then he says this in verse 22, “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”
That’s where it starts. Remember the experiment, as the guards and scientists were sucked in they became angry, then they were even more abusive. He knows our propensity to immorality, especially in fertile situations. So he teaches us to stay far away from the possibility, and in doing so, reveals our hearts to us.
I’ll close this on this note.
This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.