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How Power Can Blur the Lines of Moral Choices

Updated on June 6, 2018

A look at the controversial experiments conducted by Stanly Milgram and Philip Zimbardo

Abstract


Stanly Milgram and Philip Zimbardo both conducted experiments to determine the influence that an authoritative role can have on another person. With both experiments being conducted using only male participants, they took a look into what boundaries, if any, could a person be pushed to before they stepped out of their normal persona and exhibited behaviors that were outside of their normal character and comfort zone. Both experiments showed that the human psyche is indeed a fragile thing, and that in terms of dominance and obedience, people can be pushed to the point of causing harm to another person under the authority of a dominant role. The experiments also showed that for those in the dominant roles, the power of the authoritative role can become addictive, and they can become demeaning to the persons in the obedient roles.


Early experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo showed a relationship between obedience and authority. Similarly, both experiments also showed at what point a person would be willing to abandon their moral judgement and give way to the dominant or obedient role, even to the point of causing harm to another person. While Milgram’s experiment was directed toward a physical harm to others, the experiment conducted by Zimbardo created more of a psychological harm to its participants. This paper is going to take a look at the comparison and contrasting of what worked and what did not work in both experiment in terms of purpose, method, and outcome.

The difference between the two experiments of Milgram and Zimbardo is that in Milgram’s experiment, his purpose was to see how far people could be pushed to obey order that would cause a deliberate harm to others. Whereas, Zimbardo’s experiment was not meant to purposefully cause pain to other human beings. Milgram was interested in the limits a person would be willing to go under the control of an authoritative figure. Events, such as the Holocaust, were examples that sparked Milgram’s curiosity. He wanted to know if people had a natural predisposition for acts of evil or if one could be pushed into the realm of evil, despite their normal moral guard.In 1973, Philip Zimbardo conducted his experiment based on authoritative and obedient roles, known as the Prison Experiment. Zimbardo’s main purpose for h is experiment was to determine if people had the ability to resist authoritative or obedient roles in a more social setting. Zimbardo wanted to study the psychological effects of the power struggle between the roles of authority and obedience in a given setting of the makeshift prison. Zimbardo wanted to determine if the personality of the authority and obedient roles could be some indicator in prison abuse.

Similarly, both Milgram and Zimbardo both placed advertisements in the newspaper to recruit male subjects for the testing. However, Zimbardo recruited exclusively for college aged males whereas Milgram recruited males of various ages and professions. Additionally, they both had differing methods of conducting their experiments. Milgram had his male subjects play the roles of teacher and student. The teacher was instructed to administer an electric shock to the student for providing incorrect answers to various questions while being kept in separate rooms. Zimbardo’s male subjects, on the other hand were allowed to interact with each other to a degree. Zimbardo’s test was conducted by college aged males posing as both prisoners and guards in a make-shift prison setting, therefore, they had to maintain the separation of interaction as far as a prison guard would not normally interact on a personal level with a prisoner. In Zimbardo’s experiment, each of the “prisoners” were arrested at their homes by actual law enforcement officers to add to the conformity of the roles being played.

The results of the study conducted by Stanley Milgram in 1963, the results showed that many people were able to follow orders given by an authoritative figure, against their moral judgement, that caused pain for other people. The results of Milgram’s experiment also showed definitively, that people can and will be pushed beyond their limits at the commands of an authoritative figure, even to the point of causing a great deal of harm, or death, to another human being. Milgram’s experiment did receive some criticism for the testing being done on all males, and not factoring in if the female population would be so easily swayed to cross those moral lines, and for the physical and psychological effects of the participants involved in the testing. Zimbardo’s experiment shows how easily the men became the roles they were playing, and in retrospect, they were surprised with just how much the roles took on their persona. The guards, became more controlling and the prisoners originally were defiant of the control but then over time, became more broken and defeated by the lack of control they had over their own lives. Overall, it allowed those involved as well as anyone who studies the experiment, to see how separation of power and control can be key factors in conformity. “The experiment had to be cut short due its intensity.” (Behrens 2016. p. 604). In retrospect, they were surprised with just how much the roles took on their persona. The guards, became more controlling and the prisoners originally were defiant of the control but then over time, became more broken and defeated by the lack of control they had over their own lives. The men took on the roles of the experiment to the extent, that their persona began to become who they were, as if the experimental role replaced who they were before the experiment. The men playing the role of the prison guards, allowed the “power” of their roles go to their head, and the line was crossed to allow psychological abuse of the prisoners. The men in the role of the prisoners, seemed to lose their sense of who they were before the experiment, and identified themselves by their number.

In conclusion, the experiments showed how easily the men became the roles they were playing, and how easily influenced by authority one was able to overlook feelings of guilt or moral dilemma in order to obey an authoritative role. Overall, the experiment was important because it allowed those involved as well as anyone who studies the experiment, to see separation of power and control can be key factors in conformity. In addition,the experiment showed how fragile the human psyche can be. It also displays the influence that the given roles had on the men involved and how they allowed power to take them to levels of control over the other men that they would not have otherwise reached.



Resources

Behrens, L. (2016). Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum, 13th Edition. [Bookshelf Online]. Retrieved from https://vsaccess.vitalsource.com/#/books/9780133999631/

“Zimbardo-Stanford Prison Experiment Documentary.” YouTube, BBC, 1 Apr. 2017, www.bing.com/videos/search?q=Zimbardo+Prison+Experiment+Video+BBC&&view=detail&mid=82D3EDD34310C8E9F55F82D3EDD34310C8E9F55F&FORM=VRDGAR.

A brief video summary of the Stanford Prison Experiment

Stanley Milgram's Obedience Study

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