Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Stanford Prison Study

In 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo wanted to study the psychological effects of prison life. He advertised for volunteers and, with the help of consultants (one of whom was a former prisoner who had spent 16 years behind bars), prepared the basement of the Stanford Psychology building to be as much like a prison as possible. In order to be as true to reality as they could, he arranged for the randomly chosen Prisoners to be "arrested" by actual city policemen. 

After a surprise visit by uniformed policemen, they were handcuffed, taken to the police station, fingerprinted, booked, blindfolded, and placed in a holding cell. Soon they were transferred to the "Stanford Prison" where they were further dehumanized by being stripped, doused with anti-lice powder, and given a gown bearing their prison number, a stocking hat (made from ladies' nylons), rubber sandals, and finally were fitted with a locked chain around their right ankles. Their prison number was now the only thing they were to be known by; no more using names.

The humiliated Prisoners were placed 3 to a small cell. A tiny closet was prepared for "solitary confinement."

Meanwhile, the other half of the volunteers had been randomly given the job of Guards. They also were dressed the part, with uniforms, mirror sunglasses (so as to not show their eyes, making them more intimidating), and billy clubs.

The Guards were to keep law and order and to command the respect of the prisoners. Other than that, no specific instructions were given. 


The Prisoners were awakened throughout the night for arbitrary number checks. At first, the Prisoners did not take the Guards seriously, and the Guards retaliated by becoming more authoritative. As rebellious behavior escalated, so did the retaliations. The Guards made disobedient prisoners do push-ups (even stepping on their backs while they did them), demanded that all the Prisoners be naked, and put one particularly rebellious Prisoner in the 2X2 foot "solitary confinement" dark closet for hours at a time.

Prisoners were denied access to toilets on the whim of the Guards - just given a bucket to use which they were not always allowed to empty. Other times, the Prisoners were marched to the toilet down the hall, bags covering heads, chains on ankles, arms on the shoulders of the ones in front. At night, the Guards relieved their boredom by even more sadistic - and pornographic - treatment of the Prisoners.


Meanwhile, some of the powerless and frustrated Prisoners were variously rebelling, having breakdowns, screaming, crying, and refusing to eat, although most learned quickly to quietly comply. 

Even Dr. Zimbardo began to lose sight of his experiment and became embroiled in the drama of running the Prison. When faced with a rumor of an upcoming escape attempt, he tried to enlist the help of the police to "contain his prisoners," and when they refused, he covered the Prisoners' heads in bags and moved them all to a different floor of the building to thwart their plans.

He wrote, "It wasn't until much later that I realized how far into my prison role I was at that point -- that I was thinking like a prison superintendent rather than a research psychologist."


The planned two-week experiment was ended after only six days, largely as the result of a comment from one of Dr. Zimbardo's colleagues. When she witnessed the Prisoners marching chained and bagged to the toilet, she made no secret of her outrage, "It's terrible what you are doing to these boys!" Its morality seriously called into question and the obvious psychological distress of the participants marked the end of the "Stanford Prison." "We had created an overwhelmingly powerful situation -- a situation in which prisoners were withdrawing and behaving in pathological ways, and in which some of the guards were behaving sadistically. Even the 'good' guards felt helpless to intervene, and none of the guards quit while the study was in progress," later wrote the doctor.

The participants' sense of reality had shifted. The "prison" became their reality. When interviewed two months after the experiment, the Guards were dismayed at what they had done. At the time, they felt no guilt or shame, but afterwards, back in the real world, they were alarmed to see what they had been capable of doing.

This is the fundamental danger of the false reality of cult life. Its own skewed morality becomes the accepted and practiced norm, and in such a situation, anything can happen.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Extracting a Cultist

One might naturally think that to change someone's valued belief all that is necessary would be to show them another side. It's not so easy.

If you've read my other blog posts, you can see that there are very compelling reasons why people cling to a belief. Beliefs can easily become part of our very identities. The higher the personal cost in adopting the belief, the more we value it, and the tighter we cling. The years we hold that belief add up into sunk cost, and we figure we need to keep on - we've already put so much into it. Loss aversion comes into play, and we just don't want to give it up.

Briefly, most decisions, beliefs included, are made as a result of emotional pull. We later tell ourselves all sorts of good-sounding, rational reasons why we made that decision, but the fact is that our brains are hard-wired to naturally move by emotion. Smart people can come up with many more reasons than others to support their beliefs.

Once a decision is made, you have the need for consistency - no one likes disconfirming evidence and the uncomfortable dissonance that causes in the mind - as well as the confirmation bias, that makes us see only things that confirm our belief and literally not see what would disconfirm it.

"It is extremely rare for someone to simply abandon a valued belief when confronted with disconfirming information. In fact, recent psychological research shows that when this happens, people tend to hold the erroneous belief even more strongly." - Daniel Kahneman

So, what to do? How to help someone stuck in an obviously false and dangerous belief?


I think the only way to do it is to get them to step away completely - change their environment and surroundings - and then new views can work their magic. It was hard for me, because I had invested so many years into the group - all that sunk cost, and the false valuation I placed on my life in the cult. Moving away from big communes was the first step. Then my months of living away from the cult gave me a taste of freedom and helped me not want to live with other Family members ever again. The next important step was spending less and less time reading the publications. Finally, my mind was clear enough to see the truth in the British court statement, and I could call it quits.