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Einstein once wrote that "our conscious acts spring from our desires and our fears." Many agree. For example, David Hume suggested in A Treatise of Human Nature that humans are prone to letting emotions drive their morals over reason. Certainly, we don't use reason to decide many of our actions - oftentimes we act purely based on emotion. (Ever gotten angry and thrown or broke something as a result? Ever fallen in love with someone you know "just isn't right for you?" Ever broken up with someone over jealousy, only to have regrets later?)

But could it be that it also works in the reverse? Might it be that actions drive morals and emotions? Could it be, as Lord Acton famously stated, that "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely?"

In 1971, psychology professors carried out the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. It's goal was to examine the psychological effects of power and powerlessness in prison. For $15/day, 24 students were randomly assigned to be either prisoners or guards in a mock prison. Though scheduled to last 2 weeks, the experiment was shut down after only 6 days. Why? Because, almost immediately, some of the student volunteers playing the role of guard became abusive and demeaning toward those in the role of prisoner. The became almost sadistic. Examples included being "taunted, stripped naked, deprived of sleep and forced to use plastic buckets as toilets."

In other words, put someone in a role of being a bad person and there's a very good chance that not only will they act like a bad person, but it will become part of who they are.

Who funded the study? The US Government of course.

This experiment built upon one a decade earlier that provided a chilling look at authority roles. The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures demonstrated how easily we obey positions of power to do terrible things. A random "teacher" was willing to give fatal electrical shocks to random "students" for incorrect answers. As Milgram noted in "The perils of obedience," "The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation. Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority."


(As an aside, ethical guidelines for psychological experiments involving humans changed as a result of the Stanford Prison Experiment because it was so easy to get people to abuse others. However, it appears it didn't change the American Psychological Association's policy that psychologists' participation in "war on terror" interrogations were fulfilling "a valuable and ethical role to assist in protecting our nation, other nations, and innocent civilians from harm." You know… like the torture interrogations at Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prisons.)

It is often thought that our moral attitudes shape our decisions and actions. However, these experiments suggest that it also works the other way around: if we are put into certain roles or certain environments, our attitude toward what is and isn't moral changes.

Do institutions outside of us control or drive our behavior, or do our internal values, morals, and emotions drive our actions? Do we become the people of the roles we play? In what cases do our chosen behaviors change our morals and emotions? Do laws that force us to behave a certain way cause us to change what we think is moral? Could it be that it is politics that is turning politicians into bad people? What caused these ordinary students in this experiment to do terrible things? Do you think you would become abusive if you were put into a role that allowed you to be abusive? What do you think your capacity is to become a monster? If you were given total power over another person, what would you do?

Stanford Prison Experiment (Documentary)


Original posting by Braincrave Second Life staff on Sep 15, 2011 at http://www.braincrave.com/viewblog.php?id=643

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