18 June 2005

bad cop

On my lunch break today, I sat briefly at a red light before starting to advance through an intersection. I yielded, though, as I heard a siren. A police car on the perpendicular street, which now had a red light, flashed its lights and sounded its siren. It threaded its way past cars waiting at the light and those that yielded for it. Once through the traffic, it turned off its signals.

But, encountering a few cars about 100 feet later, the cop turned on its signals again, allowing it to pass the vehicles. Then, off again. False alarms? I don't think so. I coincidentally was traveling the same direction and watched this police officer pull into the bank drive-thru cash machine.

This police behavior has become a pet peeve of mine. While perhaps a trifle in the scheme of things wrong in the world, it's still a microcasm. It illustrates how people can abuse power when placed in positions of authority.

It calls to mind The Stanford Prison Experiment that most learn about in basic psychology.

prison experiment photo

At Stanford University, volunteers participated in a study of the psychological effects of prison life. Applicants were tested to eliminate candidates with psychological problems, medical disabilities, or a history of crime or drug abuse. The study began with an average group of healthy, intelligent, middle-class males. They were arbitrarily divided into two groups by a flip of the coin. Half to be guards, the other to be prisoners.

Experimentors set up a simulated prison environment: no windows, no clocks, bars, solitary confinement, uniforms, etc. What happened was surprising, illuminating and chilling. The line between the experiment and reality blurred for all participants. Guards, not having been given any rules or training, fell fairly easily into their roles, doling out punishment and intimidating the prisoners. After only 36 hours one prisoner had to be released from the project because he exhibited an acute emotional disturbance. Even the experimentors became too tied up in the experiment they had created. They ended up having to end the project after 6 days, instead of the planned two weeks--after an outside visitor recognized the disturbing effects of the experiment.

"We had created an overwhelmingly powerful situation -- a situation in which prisoners were withdrawing and behaving in pathological ways, and in which some of the guards were behaving sadistically," says experimentor Phil Zimbardo. "Even the "good" guards felt helpless to intervene, and none of the guards quit while the study was in progress."

This experiment is really interesting--the web site gives a rather thorough account of it. It's used in comparison to concentration camps, current prisons and the Abu Ghiraib abuse scandal.

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