Fromm...on Zimbardo's Prison Experiment...cont.

Aside from its lack of precision and the lack of a self-critical evaluation of the results, the experiment suffers from another failure: that of checking its results with real prison situations of the same type. Are most prisoners in the worst type of American prison slavishly docile, and are most guards brutal sadists? The authors cite only one ex-convict and a prison priest as evidence for the thesis that the results of the mock prison correspond to those found in real prisons. Since it is a crucial question for the main thesis of the experiments, they should have gone much further in establishing comparisons—for instance, by systematic interviews with many ex-prisoners. Also, instead of simply speaking of “prisons,” they should have presented more precise data on the percentage of prisons in the United States that correspond to the degrading type of prison they tried to duplicate.

The failure of the authors to check their conclusions with a realistic situation is particularly regrettable since there is ample material at hand dealing with a prison situation far more brutal than that of the worst American prisons—Hitler’s Concentration camps.

As far as the spontaneous cruelty of SS guards is concerned, the question has not been systematically studied. In my own limited efforts to secure data on the incidence of spontaneous sadism of the guards—i.e., sadistic behavior going beyond the prescribed routine and motivated by individual sadistic lust—I have received estimates from former prisoners ranging from 10 to 90 per cent, the lower estimates more often coming from former political prisoners.”(12) To establish the facts it would be necessary to undertake a thorough study of the sadism of guards in the Nazi concentration camp system; such a study might use several approaches. For example:

1. Systematic interviews with former concentration camp inmates—relating their statement to their age, reason for arrest, duration of imprisonment, and other relevant data-and similar interviews with former concentration camp guards.(13)

2. “Indirect” data, such as the following: the system used, at least in 1939, to “break” new prisoners during the long train trip to the concentration camp, such as inflicting severe physical pain (beatings, bayonet wounds), hunger, extreme humiliations. The SS guards executed these sadistic orders, showing no mercy whatsoever. Later, however, when the prisoners were transported by train from one camp to another nobody touched these by now “old prisoners.” (B. Bettelheim, 1960.) If the guards had wanted to amuse themselves by sadistic behavior, they certainly could have done so without fearing any punishment.(14) That this did not occur frequently might lead to certain conclusions about the individual sadism of the guards. As far as the attitude of the prisoners is concerned, the data from concentration camps tend to disprove Haney, Banks, and Zimbardo’s main thesis, which postulates that individual values, ethics, convictions do not make any difference as far as the compelling influence of the environment is concerned. On the contrary, differences in the attitude, respectively, of apolitical, middle-class prisoners (mostly Jews) and prisoners with a genuine political conviction or religious conviction or both demonstrate that the values and convictions of prisoners do make a critical difference in the reaction to conditions of the concentration camp that are common to all of them.

Bruno Bettelheim has given a most vivid and profound analysis of this difference:

Non-political middle class prisoners (a minority group in the concentration camps were those least able to withstand the initial shock. They were utterly unable to understand what had happened to them and why. More than ever they clung to what had given them self respect up to that moment. Even while being abused, they would assure the SS they had never opposed Nazism. They could not understand why they, who had always obeyed the law without question, were being persecuted. Even now, though unjustly imprisoned, they dared not oppose their oppressors even in thought, though it would have given them a self respect they were badly in need of. All they could do was plead, and many grovelled. Since law and police had to remain beyond reproach, they accepted as just whatever the Gestapo did. Their only objection was that they had become objects of a persecution which in itself must be just, since the authorities imposed it. They rationalized their difficulty by insisting it was all a “mistake.” The SS made fun of them, mistreated them badly, while at the same time enjoying scenes that emphasized the position of superiority. The prisoner group as a whole was especially anxious that their middle class status should be respected in some way. What upset them, most was being treated “like ordinary criminals.”

Their behavior showed how little the apolitical German middle class was able to hold its own against National Socialism. No consistent philosophy, either moral, political, or social, protected their integrity or gave them strength for an inner stand against Nazism. They had little or no resources to fall back on when subject to the shock of imprisonment. Their self esteem bad rested on a status and respect that came with their positions, depended on their jobs, on being head of a family, or similar external factors....

Nearly all of them lost their desirable middle c1ass characteristics, such as their sense of propriety and self respect. They became shiftless, and developed to an exaggerated extent the undesirable characteristics of their group: pettiness, quarrel-someness, self pity. Many became chiselers and stole from other prisoñers, (Stealing from, or cheating the SS was often considered as honorable as stealing from prisoners was thought despicable.) They seemed incapable of following a life pattern of their own any more, but copied those developed by other groups of prisoners. Some followed the behavior pattern set by the criminals. Only very few adopted the ways of political prisoners, usually the most desirable of all patterns, questionable as it was. Others tried to do in prison what they preferred to do outside of it, namely to submit without question to the ruling group. A few tried to attach themselves to the upper class prisoners and emulate their behavior. Many more tried to submit slavishly to the SS, some even turning spy in their service (which, apart from these few, only some criminals did). This was no help to them either, because the Gestapo liked the betrayal but despised the traitor. (B. Báttelheim, 1960.)

Bettelheim has given here a penetrating analysis of the sense of identity and self-esteem of the average member of the middle class: his social position, his prestige, his power to command are the props on which his self-esteem rests. If these props are taken away, he collapses morally like a deflated balloon. Bettelheim shows why these people were demoralized and why many of them became abject slaves and even spies for the SS. One important element among the causes for transformation must be stressed; these nonpolitical prisoners could not grasp the situation; they could not understand why they were in the concentration camp, because they were in their conventional belief that only “criminals” are punished—and they were not criminals. This lack of understanding and the resulting confusion contributed considerably to their collapse.

The political and religious prisoners reacted entirely differently to the same conditions.

For these political prisoners who had expected persecution by the SS, imprisonment was less of a shock because they were physically prepared for it. They resented their fate, but somehow accepted it as something that fit their understanding of the course of events. While understandably. and correctly anxious about their future and what might happen to their families and friends, they certainly saw no reason to feel degraded by the fact of imprisonment, though they suffered under camp conditions as much as other prisoners.

As conscientious objectors, all Jehovah’s Witnesses were sent to the camps. They were even less affected by imprisonment and kept their integrity thanks to rigid religious beliefs. Since their only crime in the eyes of the SS was a refusal to bear arms, they were frequently offered freedom in return for military service. They steadfastly refused.

Members of this group were generally narrow in outlook and experience, wanting to make converts, but on the other hand exemplary comrades, helpful, correct, dependable. They were argumentative, even quarrelsome only when someone questioned., their religious beliefs. Because of their conscientious work habits, they were often selected as foremen. But once a foreman, and having accepted an order from the SS, they insisted that prisoners do the work well and in the time allotted. Even though they were the only group of prisoners who never abused or mistreated other prisoners (on the contrary, they were usually quite courteous to fellow prisoners), SS officers preferred them as orderlies because of their work habits, skills, and unassuming attitudes. Quite in contrast to the continuous internecine warfare among the other prisoner groups, the Jehovah’s Witnesses never misused their closeness to SS officers to gain positions of privilege in the camp. (B. Bettelheim, 1960.)

Even if Bettelheim’s description of the political prisoners is very sketchy(15) he makes it quite clear nevertbeless that those concentration camp inmates who had a conviction and believed in it reacted to the same circumstances in an entirely different way from the prisoners who had no such convictions. This fact contradicts the behaviorist thesis Haney et al. tried to prove with their experiment.

One cannot help raising the question about the value of such “artificial” experiments, when there is so much material available for “natural” experiments. This question suggests itself all the more because experiments of this type not only lack the alleged accuracy which is supposed to make them preferable to natural experiments, but also because the artificial setup tends to distort the whole experimental situation as with one in “real life.”

What is meant here by “real life”?

It would perhaps be better to explain the term by a few examples than by a formal definition that would raise philosophical and epistemological questions, whose discussion would take us far away from the mainline of our thought.

In “war games” a certain number of soldiers are declared to have been “killed” and guns “destroyed.” They are, according to the rules of the game, but this has no consequences for them as persons, or as things; the “dead” soldier enjoys his short rest, the “destroyed” cannon will go on serving its purpose. The worst fate for the losing side would be that its commanding general might be handicapped in his further career. In other words, what happens in the war game does not affect anything in the realistic situation of most of those involved.

Games played for money are another case in point. Most people who bet on cards, roulette, or the horses are very aware of the borderline between “game” and “reality”; they play only for amounts whose loss does not seriously affect their situation, i.e., has no serious consequences.

A minority, the real “gamblers,” will risk amounts whose loss would, indeed, affect their economic situation up to the point of ruin. But the “gambler” does not really “play a game”; he is involved in a very realistic, often dramatic form of living. The same “game-reality” concept holds true for a sport like fencing; neither of the two persons involved risks his life. If the situation is constructed in such a way that he does, we speak of a duel, not of a game.”(16)

If in psychological experiments the “subjects” were clearly aware that the whole situation is only a game, everything would be simple. But in many experiments, as in that of Milgram, they are misinformed and lied to; as for the prison experiment it was set up in such a way that the awareness that everything was only an experiment would be minimized or lost. The very fact that many of these experiments, is order to be undertaken at all, must operate with fakery demonstrates this peculiar unreality; the participants’ sense of reality is confused and their critical judgment greatly reduced.”(17)

In “real life” the person knows that his behavior will have consequences. A person-may have a phantasy of wanting to kill somebody, but only rarely does the phantasy lead to deeds. Many express these phantasies in dreams because in the state of sleep phantasies have no consequences. Experiments in which the subjects lack a complete feeling of reality may cause reactions that represent unconscious tendencies, rather than show how the subject would behave in reality.”(18) Whether an event is real or a game is of decisive importance for still another reason. It is well known that a real danger tends to mobilize “emergency energy” to deal with it, often to an extent that the person involved would never have thought of himself as having the required physical strength, skill, or endurance. But this emergency energy is mobilized only when the whole organism is confronted with a real danger, and for good neurophysiological reasons; dangers the person daydreams about do not stimulate the organism in this way, but only lead to fear and worry. The same principle holds true not only for emergency reactions in face of danger, but for the difference between phantasy and reality in many other respects, as for instance the mobilization of moral inhibitions and reactions of conscience which fail to be aroused when the whole situation is not felt to be real.

In addition, the role of the experimenter must be considered in laboratory experiments of this type. He presides over a fictitious reality constructed and controlled by him. In a certain sense he represents reality for the subject and for this reason his influence is a hypnoid one akin to that of a hypnotist toward his subject. The experimenter relieves the subject, to some extent, of his responsibility and of his own will, and hence makes him much more prone to obey the rules than the subject would be in a nonhypnoid situation.

Finally, the difference between the mock prisoners and real prisoners is so great that it is virtually impossible to draw analogies from observation of the former. For a prisoner who has been sent to prison for a certain action, the situation is very real; he knows the reasons (whether his punishment it just or not is another problem); he knows his helplessness and the few rights he has, he knows his chances for an earlier release. Whether a man knows that he is to stay in prison (even under the worst conditions) for two weeks or two months or two years or twenty years obviously is a decisive factor that influences his attitude. This factor alone is critica1 for his hopelessness, demoralization, and sometimes (although exceptionally) for the mobilization of new energies ---with benign or malignant aims. Furthermore, a prisoner is not “a prisoner.” Prisoners are individuals and they react individually according to the differences in their respective character structures. But this does not imply that their reaction is only a function of their character and not one of their environment. It is merely naive to assume that it must be either this or that. The complex and challenging problem in each individual—and group—is to find out what the specific interaction is between a given character structure and a given social structure. It is at this point that real investigation begins, and it is only stifled by the assumption that the situation is the one factor which explains human behavior.

12 Personal communications from H. Brandt and Professor H. Simonson—both of whom spent many years in concentration camps as political prisoners—and others who preferred not to be mentioned by name. Cf. also H. Brandt (1970).

13 I know from Dr. J. M. Steiner that he is preparing a study based on such interview, for the press; this promises to be an important contribution.

14 At that time a guard had to submit a written report only when he had killed a prisoner.

15 For a much fuller description see H. Brandt (1970).

16 M Maccoby's studies on the significance at the game attitude in the social character of Americans has sharpened my awareness of the dynamics of the "game" attitude (M. Maccoby, to be published soon. (Cf. also M. Maccoby, 1972).

17 They remind one of an essential feature of TV commercials, in which an atmosphere is created that confuses the difference between phantasy and reality, and which lends itself to the suggestive influence of the "message." The viewer "knows" that the use of a certain soap will not bring about a miraculous change in his life, yet simultaneously another part of him does believe this. Instead of deciding what is real and what is fiction, he continues to think in the twilight of nondifferentiation between reality and illusion.

18 For this reason an occasional murderous dream only permits the qualitative statement that such impulses exist, but no quantitative statement about their intensity. Only their frequent recurrence would permit also quantitative analysis.