Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Hanoi Hilton, the Stanford Prison Experiment – Thoughts on Morality, Institutional Life, the Hermetic Experience and Human Nature

First of two (or so) posts. Very much a work in progress

The contrast could not be more striking, or suggest more contradictory theses about human nature. Consider two prisons. In each, ill defined directions are given to the prison guards. Little or no guidance is given with regard to how they are allowed to treat inmates. One common element of instruction exists. In both prisons, the guard are instructed to exercise their creativity in service of one essential goal; causing in the inmate population a feeling of helplessness, and lack of control or power over their individual fates. The further purposes served by this essential goal are quite different in the two prison settings, but this one task is deemed essential to the further goals.



Equipped with the accouterments of prison authority (uniforms, batons and shades that cut off the possibility of eye contact) the guards in our first prison engage their creativity in efforts to carry out their directives. They are to do so for a set period of two weeks. They make use of time-worn techniques intended to strip identity, (drab prison uniforms, prisoner numbers used in place of names, for instance). They also use other techniques intended to disorient and confuse inmates (lighting at all hours, sleep disruption, transport while blindfolded). Other methods improvised, including forced nudity, collective punishment, verbal insult and humiliation, solitary confinement, conspire against the prisoners.

In this prison, the hapless inmates quickly dissolve under this stress, and any nascent unified front dissipates. After a brief period of rebellion, and standing up for themselves, prisoners largely look to ‘survive’ ‘get out in one piece’ and most are pliant to the guards’ demands and manipulations. Some small number of inmates rebel, stand up against the abuse, but they are effectively isolated from the group, sometimes quite literally, but always in the figurative sense that the other prisoners join guards in condemning the rebels. Quite a few prisoners suffer emotional and psychological breakdowns. More often than not, prisoners as a group, adopt the moral evaluations of fellow prisoners that are on offer from the guards, evaluations clearly offered as part of the methodology of control. If a prisoner is considered a ‘bad prisoner’ by the guards, so is it also with his fellow prisoners. Prisoners follow guard directives to deride the recalcitrant.

Upon release from this first prison, prisoners had understandable resentment toward guards, and prison administration, but considerable guilt about their own behavior with regard to fellow prisoners, particularly the rebels, people that would otherwise have been viewed as courageous, and perhaps heroic.

The somewhat Hobbesian picture of human nature that emerges from our first prison is grim. Under pressure, powerless human beings will be reduced to largely self interested motivations, will be willing to overlook abuse of others and in fact sometimes participate, or treat the occasional brave rebel, not as a hero, or a person of moral and physical courage, but as a morally bad individual. An entire life of moral behavior is negated or at least thrown into question, altruism and social cohesion collapse, concern for the welfare of others is dispensed with. The veneer of civilization is thin, and morality appears to be a sham, something that will fall by the wayside under pressure.



Looking at prison number one, lessons can be learned about proper responsible ‘architecture’ of systems of incarceration, and similar institutions where there are stark power relations, and indeed, much has been made of these matters in the literature that has grown up around this particular prison. But that will not be the primary focus of these posts. The focus here will be upon the prisoners, and lessons we can learn from them, lessons we can learn about life in pressure situations. In our first case, the lessons look to be quite grim, as said before. This brings us to our second prison:





In the second prison, all of the methods used in the first, were utilized, to degrees more intense, and for a much longer and indefinite period of time. There were also additional harsher environmental factors and methods used over most of that same time period. These included undernourishment, life-threatening and crippling torture, the stocks, isolation for months or years, extreme punishments for communications between inmates, uncooperative behavior or rebellion. Bathing was a luxury allowed only occasionally. Extremes of temperature were endured.

In our second case, upon release, there was, as with prison number one, an understandable sense of moral outrage toward the guards and administration of the prison, even as there was a recognition that they were something like ‘professionals’ doing their jobs. There was even a level of forgiveness. But, in stark contrast to the inmates of prison number one, inmates of our second prison did not have to live with considerable guilt vis-à-vis their behavior with regard to fellow inmates. For, the prisoners in our second case exhibited extreme levels of unity, were incredibly cohesive, presented a frustrating and always united front to their jailers, regularly put the welfare of fellow inmates above their individual welfare, and quite a few came away with a paradoxical appreciation for the experience. For they believed that otherwise, they would probably not have been able to experience either the level of love for their fellow man, or develop the courage, moral and physical, that we can only describe as heroic. Yet, to a man, none of the former inmates of this second prison would describe themselves in these exemplary terms. They consider themselves to be ordinary human beings. Most people, they say, would react in the same way to the circumstances.




The picture of human nature that emerges from our second prison is anything but grim. We can infer that under extreme pressure, powerless human beings will pull together, work toward their collective survival, put service to others before self, will not stand idly by while others are abused, and will rally round the rebel, the hero, serve his cause, and indeed become heroic themselves. They will not allow their moral sense to become perverted. They will not be convinced that morally good people are morally bad. Civilization and morality are not mere thin veneers, and indeed this experience seems to suggest that they find their origins in times of great stress. They are innate features of humanity that will be coaxed to bloom in such harsh circumstances. In short; there is a deep and abiding optimism in the view of human nature that seems to be a natural reading of the events surrounding prison number two.

Obviously, the two results are so different as to be apparently contradictory. One then is naturally led to assume that there must be some important differences in the two cases that are sufficient to account for the radically different results. The search for these differentiating and explanatory features is the intent of this essay. One cannot hope to give a detailed hypothesis, but a reasonably compelling sketch. It will rely on the reflections of two people that have thought long and hard about their experiences in these two prisons.

The first person is Dr. Phil Zimbardo, research psychologist and Principle Investigator of the Stanford Prison experiment. We will see that his thoughts about proper exercise of authority and architectonic of institutional structure will have some analogs with the situation at the Hoa Lo prison (Hanoi Hilton) and relevance to things we can say about the differences between the two prisoner populations.

The second expert is Admiral James B. Stockdale, who was prisoner of war in Hoa Lo for much of the duration of the Vietnam War. He too has things to say about responsible leadership or authority within the prison, in particular the inmate population, and effective building or architectonic of institutions that will mediate moral survivability in situations of powerlessness and duress.

By reflecting on the contributions of these two men, I think we can glean something of significance to say about human nature under stress, and the significance of institutions, roles and rules, for a proper understanding of and coping with the temptation to fall into moral error when under stress. We can also glean answers to the more broad and philosophical question of the relationship that exists between institutions, morality and human nature.

But, before we talk about the views of these two men, I do want to reinforce the contrary seeming results of our two cases. For, if you were to be asked to bet upon which prison population would exhibit more rebellion, and present a more unified front to the constituted authority; you would probably place your chips on the space occupied by the Stanford prisoners. For, their circumstance was not only significantly less harsh than was the case at Hoa Lo, but they were always free to leave. It was a consensual imprisonment for which they were being paid, albeit a very modest sum. What is more, the guards were recruited from the same pool as were the prisoners. All were volunteer college students from 1970 Stanford. So, ideally, you would expect that they would have knowledge of this fact operating somewhere in their conscious mind, realize there were no serious repercussions for standing up to ‘the man’, and would therefore be more disposed to act ‘heroically’. As events unfolded, this was most decidedly not the case.

(This is all the more remarkable when you consider that they were young college students during the height of the countercultural youth movement, with its suspicion for authority, and especially law enforcement.)


At Stanford, prisoners and guards lost sight of all this. Zimbardo’s claim is that the guards lost themselves in their roles because they wanted to contribute to science, play assigned roles properly, and wanted to succeed in carrying out the instructions they were given, pursuant to their roles. One guard even claimed he had grown interested in conducting ‘mini-experiments’ of his own, seeing how far he could push with abuse before prisoners would push back.

Interestingly, Zimbardo himself reports he gradually lost sight of the fact that he was a scientist, becoming engrossed in his other role, a role he now says he should not have taken on; the role of the superintendent of the jail. This loss of perspective in the Stanford case is remarkable and in need of explanation. Remarkably, it was something that was an issue not only for the guards and superintendent, but the prisoners as well.

It is clear that most of the prisoners involved lost sight of the fact that the jail was not real. This forgetfulness might help explain the lack of heroics or rebellion. But this just leads us to the other horn of our paradox:

You would probably not have bet on the Prisoners at Hoa Lo presenting a unified front, or significantly rebelling for any period of time, if you compared their severe and genuine plight to the lesser and sham plight of the Stanford prisoners. Yet, the inmates of Hoa Lo far and away take the prize for exhibition of unified rebellion and heroics.

How can this be?

As intimated before, the answer appears to come from a careful meditation on the nature of the various institutions involved, and their powers to mold cognition and behavior of individuals contained therein. Essential to fully grasping this power, is coming to terms with the fact that the institutions involved have ends for which they exist, as well as rules, roles and leadership, the latter functioning to perpetuate and interpret the institutional ends and frameworks. It is to be noted that Zimbardo’s analysis, (one carried out primarily in terms explicating how the “jail” and its institutional system had damping effects on the moral awareness of guards and prisoners) is also of profit when we look at how the Hoa Lo experience, particularly the active role taken by POW leadership and the general prison population, in fact heightened moral awareness in that prison population. Admiral Stockdale has much to say in this regard. He makes clear to us that there are two sides to the situational “influence” a system or institution can have on moral cognition and behavior. His story, his account of institution building within the confines of Hoa Lo accentuates the positive side, while Zimbardo’s cautionary tale emphasizes the negative. We will see that competent and careful institutional creation and leadership tends toward the positive heightening aspect, while incompetent, hasty and hurried institutional creation and leadership tends toward the negative and damping.

All of this has a bearing on moral science, more broadly construed, because we all live firmly ensconced in a world filled with human institutions and multitudinous pressures. What is remarkable about our two cases is that they, like scientific experiments in other fields, in effect isolated the prisoners from factors other than the prisons’ institution and pressure (imperfectly of course), and thereby allowed us to see the effects of such isolation and concentrated mono-sourced pressure. Once in this isolated state, not unlike physical objects in the artificial setting of chemical or physical experiments, prisoners were subject to intense moral, emotional and psychological coercion. We are allowed to watch the results, that is; how the group of individuals responds to this pressure. We answer questions like this: Do they respond as a group? Do they respond as individuals? Do they support each other? Do they look out primarily for self? Do they betray? Do they defy? Do they become compliant and docile? What effect is there on their moral sense? And for each of these questions, we can also answer the inevitable “Why or why not?”

Under incredible moral, emotional and psychological pressure Admiral Stockdale and the other American officers at Hoa Lo quite deliberately and consciously set about creating a “civilization” and an institution which proved vital in setting the inmates’ moral bearings in relations to the North Vietnamese institution within which they were being held and tested. At the core of this small civilization was the Code of Conduct for American prisoners of war that had been formulated in the wake of the Korean conflict. Nothing like this occurred at Stanford. We need to know why this is. The answer is of immense practical significance.

As Zimbardo emphasizes, we must take care to pay attention to the fact that institutions shape behavior, not only of those in the “ranks”, and those at opposite ends of power relations, but leaders as well. But, leaders are expected to consciously guide institutions, serving as their ‘hearts and minds’, the rational guide and moral conscience of the organizations. But, being human, leaders must be aware that institutions can damp their moral cognition, just as much as it can similarly affect the rank and file. This fact, along with a consideration of the fairly complex interplay between the goals of the conflicting institutions that we find in the Hoa Lo case, can allow us to sketch an explanation of the seemingly paradoxical results of our two cases. Finally, reflection on the results of these explorations tell us something about the essence, limits and potentialities of human nature, and allow us to sketch a picture of man as (please pardon the pretentious neologism) ‘homo moralis institutionalis’, a moral creature of institutions.

A brief road map of the way forward: We will first sketch the nature of institutions, the roles played by the ends for which they are created, the importance and attraction of tradition, the role played by..well..roles within institutions, and the centrality of leadership for healthy institutions. We also will sketch how interplay of these factors brought about the behavior of those in authority in our two prisons. In particular, we will see how carefully crafted rules and clear and engaged leadership allowed for success and a morally sound institution in the Hoa Lo prison population, where no such rules and weak inept or detached leadership rendered success with integrity less likely, and produced a morally deficient institution in the Stanford case, indeed risking the psychological integrity of those prisoners and guards within. We will attempt to explain all this using a model of conflicting institutional values or ends to explain the difference responses of the two prison populations. But first a backgrounder or primer of sorts, with apologies for the many statements of the obvious:

[Next time: "Institutional life- humanity’s accomplishment."]