Surrendering to the Prison of Preconceived Notions
One of the most famous and controversial social experiments of all time explored the mechanics of social roles and authority. In his article, “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo explores the relationship between prisoners and their guards in a two-week mock prison built in the Stanford University Psychology Department’s basement. After only six days, Zimbardo was forced to conclude the experiment due to fact that the subjects could no longer distinguish the experiment from reality and fulfilled their roles to the extreme, bringing out the worst in both sides. Physician and author Walker Percy calls the phenomenon that occurred in the subjects of Zimbardo’s experiment a symbolic complex, a preconceived idea of something based on the words, experiences, and ideas of others that blinds from reality, in his article, “The Loss of the Creature.” Rather than exemplify the negative effects of authority and power, Zimbardo’s experiment uncovers the power of situations and ultimately reveals that real evil derives from surrendering one’s integrity and beliefs to Percy’s symbolic complex.
In the summer of 1973 in Palo Alto, California, the experiment and symbolic complex began when real policemen drove up to the subjects’ homes, arrested them, and drove them to their “prison.” The subjects were all college-aged white males who volunteered to be either prisoners or guards to each other in a makeshift prison. Once they arrived, the now-prisoners were issued an ID number followed by basic jail protocol which included a strip-search and a uniform consisting of a smock and matching cap. The guards were given a uniform as well with sunglasses to wear inside with not much instruction at all. The first day the subjects were wary of their surroundings and had not acclimated to their new roles yet. However, this all changed the second day when the prisoners ignited a rebellion by barricading themselves in their cells and refusing to behave in their roles. The guards fought back by establishing their authority and began to punish the prisoners. This was the beginning of their new relationship, feeding off each other. As the experiment progressed, things got out of hand as the prisoners challenged the guards’ authority and the guards retaliated. Some of the guards’ punishments inflicted on the prisoners included solitary confinement, no meals, ridiculing, and degrading. Some of the prisoners accepted their treatment and others fought back, neither of them remembering that it is only an experiment and not reality. Zimbardo claims to have brought out the evil in the “cream-of-the-crop American youth” in his experiment, but there is a lack of evidence on his part as to why this occurred (Zimbardo 742).
Walker Percy’s theory of symbolic complexes offers insight to what was occurring in the subject’s minds. In his article, Percy discusses the discrepancy between the first person to ever see the Grand Canyon and every single person after him. The discoverer of the canyon had never seen anything like it and was in complete awe of the grandeur of the landmark. However, every sightseer and tourist to the canyon after him has seen at least some picture or post card of it, or heard of its splendor from word of mouth, and thus a symbolic complex is born. “Seeing the canyon under approved circumstances is seeing the symbolic complex head on. The thing is no longer the thing as confronted by the Spaniard; it is rather that which has already been formulated―by picture, postcard, geography book, tourist folders, and the words Grand Canyon” (Percy 482). The key word here is “approved circumstances.” If the canyon does not meet the criteria by which the symbolic complex rests, then the sightseer is unhappy and unable to see the canyon for what it really is.
Zimbardo’s entire experiment is based on a mock prison environment which can only be a symbolic complex for the subjects since they have never been to prison. Zimbardo states, “The media had already provided them with ample models of prison guards to emulate” (Zimbardo 735). Percy asserts that because of the symbolic complex, it is impossible for the subjects to really see the situation in real life; the subjects can only see what they have previously imagined. Everything that they know about being a guard or being a prisoner comes from the media and other people’s ideas. Each subject has a preconceived idea of what he should act like to fulfill his role. As the experiment progressed, the subjects transformed from who they were into the roles they were playing, without much conscious effort. The symbolic complex consumed them like pawns in Zimbardo’s game.
The symbolic complex in this experiment is so powerful that it changed the thoughts and feelings of the subjects. One thing that caught Zimbardo’s attention was a confession of how one guard felt in his new role. The guard, Guard K, confessed, “…when I freed myself I became angry. I wanted to get back in the cell and have a go with him, since he attacked me when I was not ready” (Zimbardo 736). This desire expressed from the guard is not a reflection of his sadistic conscience, but of his satisfaction with fulfilling his role, his symbolic complex of a prison guard. When this is the case, Percy explains, “…[the consumer] will only be conscious of the disparity between what it is and what it is supposed to be” (Percy 482). This need to achieve the approved circumstances discussed previously by Percy is so powerful that it blinds the guard from the real situation at hand. Similarly, the prisoners try to satisfy their idea of their role. This explains why there are rebellions and why some prisoners offer no resistance. The rebellious prisoners believe that is how a prisoner should behave while the submissive ones believe that is their role. This constant subconscious pressure to meet the standards of the symbolic complex and maintain it creates a lot of anxiety. Even if the role meets the standards, it could easily be shifted. Zimbardo released five prisoners within the first five days due to anxiety and stress because, according to him, they were “…simply unable to make an adequate adjustment to prison life” (Zimbardo 738). Clearly something strange had to be occurring in his experiment for five healthy men to suddenly break down mentally, and even worse for the eleven normal men (guards) who caused it.
Another key element in Zimbardo’s experiment that further contributes to the strange transformation of the subjects is the dehumanization of the prisoners. Because they wore identical uniforms and were only identified by their numbers, it is almost impossible for the guards to distinguish them as individuals and not part of the symbolic complex. Percy calls this,
…the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. It is the mistaking of an idea, a principle, an abstraction, for the real. As a consequence of the shift, the ‘specimen’ is seen as less real than the theory of the specimen. As Kierkegaard said, once a person is seen as a specimen of a race or of a species, at that very moment he ceases to be an individual. Then there are no more individuals, but only specimen. (Percy 490)
Each prisoner was no longer a person, but a number, and the guards were not the only ones guilty of this fallacy. Even the prisoners themselves surrendered their identity when they call each other by their numbers only and sign letters to their families with that number. That ID number symbolizes the complete loss of individuality and surrendering of one’s self, which allowed the guards to dehumanize and mistreat the prisoners so easily.
Zimbardo even admits to this distortion of reality of the prisoners and guards and explains, “The combination of realism and symbolism in this experiment had fused to create a vivid illusion of imprisonment. This illusion merged inextricably with reality for at least some of the time for every individual in the situation” (Zimbardo 738). Zimbardo influences the subjects to become consumers of a symbolic complex and strips them of all individualism. The guards were not “evil” as Zimbardo suggests, until they surrendered their knowledge and conscience to the symbolic complex and the prisoners surrendered their identities. This mutual exchange of personal surrender is what allowed the inhumane conditions to take place in the experiment and could be considered a recipe for evil in any scenario, essentially making Zimbardo a mastermind of corruption.
Zimbardo thought he was dealing with the negative effects of power and authority on normal, healthy people, but Percy’s ideas contribute to the more plausible explanation that there is more to the situation than meets the eye. Yes, the guards were cruel and almost evil with the prisoners when put in that position of power, but it was only because they were acting out the inextricable symbolic complex that exists in their minds. Zimbardo claims the experiment is benign because none of the subjects had any psychological trauma after the six days in experimental hell; however, he neglects to evaluate the more prominent discovery at hand regarding the nature and origin of evil, in which he played a very large role.
Percy, Walker. “The Loss of the Creature.” Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers. Ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. 8th ed. Boston: Bedford/ St.Martin’s, 2002. 313-23. Print.
Zimbardo, Philip G. “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum. Ed. Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen. 11th ed. Boston: Longman, 2011. 732-43. Print.
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