Sunday 15 March 2009

Power and Reality

First, read this

This is the classic demonstration of how people – you and I – behave in groups. 15 ‘healthy, intelligent, middle-class males’ who had passed rigorous psychological tests turned into sadists and victims within a matter of hours. That last sentence is worth re-reading.

Further, relatives and friends who came for ‘visiting hours’ absolutely accepted their role and the treatment which their loved ones were experiencing. Yet further, the study staff – highly respectable Ivy League psychologists and professional university researchers – were swallowed up by their own scenario. So was an independent lawyer. And so was a prison chaplain brought in to give his opinion on the realism of the environment. Instead of which he simply recreated his own institutionalized personality.

Each one of the researchers, the lawyer and the chaplain would have considered themselves well versed in ethics, having passed extensive training in them.

Only one person involved in the experiment actually managed to be aware of reality:

Filled with outrage, she said, "It's terrible what you are doing to these boys!" Out of 50 or more outsiders who had seen our prison, she was the only one who ever questioned its morality. Once she countered the power of the situation, however, it became clear that the study should be ended.

I would suggest that any discussion of power also requires the discussion of what reality is and is not and that this far from being simple and straightforward. The majority of the time it is so complex that most of us don’t bother thinking about it at all.

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