Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach

It’s Not The Apples, It’s The Barrel

Hooded detainees wired to electrical cables. Naked men stacked on top of each other in a pyramid. A bound prisoner smeared in excrement. 

These are only a few of the many wicked acts that happened in the prison of Abu Ghraib by US soldiers.

The military said the abuse was caused by “a few rotten apples.”

But that may not be true.

What if the environment makes completely ordinary people do unimaginable things? 

Evil things.

That’s what a group of social psychologists set out to discover almost 50 years ago.

In the early 70s, professor Philip Zimbardo and his team created a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford University psychology department. Including a cell block with fully functioning steel-barred doors and a closet doubling as an isolation cell.

Next, the team hired 24 college students with average psychological profiles and randomly divided them into two groups: guards and prisoners.

The prisoners were arrested by actual police officers and processed at the fake Stanford prison. Each detainee was then searched, stripped naked, deloused, and given smocks with a special number that replaced their name.

The guards were given military uniforms and other symbols of power, like handcuffs, a whistle, a billy club, and mirrored sunglasses. 

The one thing the guards didn’t get was formal instruction. They were free to do whatever was needed to maintain law and order in the prison, and keep the prisoners in line.

And boy, were the prisoners kept in line.

Within a day, people who identified themselves as pacifists turned into brutal and abusive prison wardens. In the middle of the night, the prisoners were pulled out of their beds and told to do pushups and other demeaning tasks.

The following morning, the prisoners rebelled.

And the guards came down with force. First taking away their clothes, then hosing them down with fire extinguishers and throwing the ringleader into isolation.

From then onward, the guards got increasingly more sadistic.

Taunting prisoners, putting bags over their heads, replacing toilets with buckets, and constantly waking them throughout the night.

All the test subjects slowly lost touch with reality. Although the prison was make-believe, everyone was entirely absorbed by their new role and forgot they were free to leave at any time.

The first person quit the experiment not out of free will, but because Zimbardo and his team got him out after he suffered a nervous breakdown. Which happened only 36 hours in.

The experiment was set to go on for two weeks, but ended after six days because everyone was losing it. Including the psychologists who ran the experiment.

It wasn’t until Zimbardo’s girlfriend first saw the degrading acts and ran out the building that the professor realised he’d fostered evil.

The Stanford experiment shows that specific situations can turn normal people from good schools and happy families into monsters.

If you follow that reasoning, what we think of as a personality isn’t fixed. You’re not simply good or evil. What you are is partly dependent on the situation.

It’s not always the apple that’s rotten, but the barrel.

By Jeroen Elsing
Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach