power corrupts

In 1971, Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted his now-infamous prison experiment. It lasted 6 days before he eventually had to shut it down. And you should watch this clip (seriously), because there is video footage from the experiment, and it’s incredible how rapidly human nature can transform.

The Background

  • Zimbardo wanted to conduct an experiment that would be somewhat akin to the Milgram experiment (I wrote about that one in Office Politics: Mindless Compliance). But instead of testing how far someone would go when given orders, he investigated how far someone would go when they were giving the orders.
  • And he did this in the context of a prison experience, where 24 male students from Stanford were selected and then randomly split in two: one group of 12 prison guards, and one ground of 12 prisoners.
  • The students were all to be paid $15 per day for their time in the experiment.
  • The advert:


  • ±70 men applied, and were all subjected to a psychological tests. Zimbardo selected the most normal and psychologically-stable of the group in order to test the impact that roles can have on even the most normal of us.
  • The roles of prisoner and prison guard were randomly divided between the 24 subjects.
  • Zimbardo then led a workshop with the prison guards the day before the experiment officially began, instructing them not to physically harm the prisoners. He can be heard (in the original footage) saying:

“You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can create a notion of arbitrariness that their life is totally controlled by us, by the system, you, me, and they’ll have no privacy… We’re going to take away their individuality in various ways. In general what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness. That is, in this situation we’ll have all the power and they’ll have none.”

  • The prison guards were given uniforms, handcuffs, whistles, batons and mirrored aviators (to prevent eye contact). The aviators allowed the prison guards to feel “masked”*. *Just goes to show you how important eye contact can be…
  • The prisoners were then “arrested” for armed robbery, processed (fingerprints, mug shots, etc), and then taken to the holding cells (the basement of Stanford’s psychology building). Here, they were strip-searched, and then handed prison clothing and new identities (each prisoner was given a number which would be his “name” for the duration of the experiment).

The Results

  • The first day was quite boring, with the guards feeling a bit awkward about their new roles.
  • But in response to the minor levels of antagonism shown toward them on Day 1, the prisoners blockaded themselves in their rooms overnight.
  • On Day 2, the guards responded to this “challenge” to their authority by subduing the prisoners with fire extinguishers, creating a privilege cell for inmates that weren’t involved in the “revolt” (with better food and rewards), using physical punishment (forced exercises), humiliating prisoners (forcing them to clean toilet bowls with their bare hands; only allowing prisoners to defecate in a bucket in their cells; not allowing prisoners to empty the buckets), and reinforcing the number “names” of the prisoners.
  • After only 36 hours, the first prisoner had a mental breakdown. In Zimbardo’s words:

“#8612 then began to act crazy, to scream, to curse, to go into a rage that seemed out of control. It took a while before we became convinced that he was really suffering and that we had to release him.”

  • After that, things degenerated even further. Mattresses were taken away; prisoners were forced to walk around naked; there was imposed solitary confinement (a closet that was not large enough to sit down in). By Day 4, the mistreatment had taken on a strong sexual element.
  • Zimbardo himself, as the “superintendent” of this prison, became complicit in the process. Even to the point of moving the prisoners into a separate complex on the rumour that one of the released prisoners was returning to stop the experiment, and remaining behind to lie and say that the experiment had been terminated.
  • On the 6th day, Zimbardo’s girlfriend (and later, wife) came to see the experiment and conduct interviews. She was horrified by the conditions, and said as much.
  • Zimbardo then aborted the experiment.

Obviously, these types of experiments attract equal amounts of attention and criticism. But the experiment does suggest something unnerving: that our behaviour can be situational rather than a question of internal disposition. And that even skilled therapists are capable of condoning gross immorality without being aware of it.

In The Corporate Environment… 

I think that there are a number of parallels. The theory is that you have a willing employer and a willing employee that meet at arm’s length, agree on a wage and a work requirement, and then proceed equally into the career sunset.

In practice, the employee is often trapped, and the line is “I’ve got bills to pay”. Most employees cannot just leave a job on a whim – they need the paycheck, and they need the paycheck regularly.

If you combine this with a workplace culture that is dehumanising (for example, where people are referred to as “resources”), or an environment where staff turnover is high and human connection hindered by it (like law firms and audit firms, where article clerks move through in droves), the conditions are in place for the Stanford prison experiment to play out daily.

Those in power internalise it, dehumanise their subordinates, and act to suppress rebellion with humiliation, punishment and reward. The powerless, in turn, accept the dehumanisation and internalise the position of subservient victim of the system.

To illustrate how an employee could become compliant in their dehumanisation – at one point in those 6 days, some of the prisoners lost their monetary compensation through some kind of parole application denial (I’m not quite sure how). But the point is, even after they had lost all monetary compensation for being part of the experiment, they stayed. Zimbardo argued that they had internalised the prisoner identity.

And I think that makes intuitive sense. I’m sure we all know people who continue in jobs where they are mistreated and underpaid and keep claiming that it just isn’t worth it. And yet, there they go on Monday mornings…

The Silver Lining

Yes, I think there is one. The experiment seemed to hinge on the lack of human connection between the guards and the prisoners, which means that the situation is avoidable.

For those of us that manage others, I believe that it’s better to err on the side of empathy. Too little, and you become the tyrant that only feels emotion when his or her authority is threatened. And employees are just one-dimensional task-performers that are either efficient or useless.

And for those that are managed, you have to be aware of your vulnerability. It is also your responsibility to engage in human connection. If you embrace your victimhood, then you become responsible for allowing your own mistreatment.

It’s just a thought.

Rolling Alpha posts opinions on finance, economics, and the corporate life in general. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rollingalpha.