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Home -> People -> Phil Zimbardo & the Stanford Prison Experiment

Philip Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment: How ordinary people can become cruel, and how not to succumb

Published: 9th August 2008

In the summer of 1971 Philip Zimbardo, a psychology professor at Stanford University in the USA, conducted an experiment that is still reverberating in the human psyche to this day.

Setting out to answer questions about what happens when you place ordinary people in a situation that asks them to commit cruel and despicable acts towards their fellow human beings, the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) has direct parallels with the recent Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

The results of the experiment were so drastic that it had to be cut short. Originally intended to run for two weeks, it was terminated after just six days.

It was found that the participants rapidly deteriorated psychologically and behaviourally: those occupying the role of guards in the simulated prison behaved increasingly sadistically, pornographically, and degradingly, while those in the role of prisoners became depressed and extremely distressed.

Frighteningly quickly the participants' collective and individual grasp of reality - that they were ordinary people participating in a psychology experiment, not in a real prison but a simulated one in the grounds of Stanford University, under the direction not of a prison supervisor but a psychology professor - was lost, Zimbardo included. Their normal identities were eroded, replaced by the roles they were enacting and the environment they were in.

The implications of this experiment are clearly highly significant. Human beings need to know what they're capable of and what situations are likely to trigger this kind of transformation. As Zimbardo's website says:

"Under certain conditions and social pressures, ordinary people can commit acts that would otherwise be unthinkable."

Arguably more important than having awareness of the terrible perils of dehumanisation is the knowledge of how to immunise and inoculate ourselves from being influenced in those ways, and how to encourage the flourishing of healthy human interactions so as to maintain their normality.

This is the subject of Zimbardo's latest book and website, 'The Lucifer Effect', where he discusses how to do this and celebrates 'everyday heroism' and the recultivation of civic virtue.

Philip Zimbardo's birth chart

First let's look at Philip Zimbardo's birth chart. The time of birth used is an approximate one, based on his mother's recollection of the time of day when she gave birth, and was obtained by correspondence with Philip Zimbardo himself.

Philip Zimbardo birth chart

In this article we'll keep things simple - and hopefully interesting - and focus solely on the midpoint structures.

When a subject interests someone and/or they become associated with it, it's normally traceable to structures in their birth chart. A key part of the SPE was the use and abuse of authority. Would people follow orders? Would people rebel? In astrology we look to the planet Saturn for information about this, and in Philip's chart Saturn is halfway between Mars and Pluto, measured along the longest side of the circle.

Here is the chart for when the SPE began, calculated using the data provided in 'The Lucifer Effect':

Stanford Prison Experiment inception chart

Interestingly, at the commencement of the SPE Saturn was once again on the midpoint of Mars and Pluto. There are no other midpoints that these two charts have in common. So let's look at what the Mars/Pluto midpoint is about and then at what Saturn being located there can mean.

Here are some quotes from two books on midpoints, putting this into pre-written words and so not tailored to the particular charts. First, quotes about the Mars/Pluto midpoint itself:

From 'Combination of Stellar Influences' by Reinhold Ebertin:

"force, brutality"

"the ability to demonstrate extraordinary force and vigour, great self-confidence, the obsession to work without any break, great ambition"

"the attainment of one's own objectives by means of ruthlessness to others, brutality, cruelty"

"the attainment of success through excessive effort"

"the tendency to proceed in a brutal manner, the misfortune of having to suffer violent assaults, injuries"

From 'Midpoints' by Michael Munkasey:

"the stimulation to be deceptive, corrupt, or degenerate; a loosening of your destructive tendencies, to be put in situations where you are forced to retaliate or punish others, increased sexual passions, extremes of irritation or displeasure, provoking struggles or battles against 'evil' forces"

"sticking through to the end despite encountering the most dire or dreadful circumstances"

"base feelings which push you to prolong gratification from practices which deplete people"

"mean emotional reactions from others"

"giving in to the lowest forms of pornographic or deviant behaviour, provoking arguments for the sheer enjoyment of battle, stimulates passions through using lewd or profane remarks, gestures or activities"

"using police or military against criminal elements"

"a police state with rigid military controls, the use of suppression and torture as a means for enforcing policy, exporting upheaval and political theory to others as an objective, wars, rape, mayhem, chaos"

Now let's look at Saturn's involvement with the above themes.

Saturn on the Mars/Pluto midpoint

From 'Combination of Stellar Influences' by Reinhold Ebertin:

"A person unafraid of hard work leaving no stone unturned in the pursuit of a particular task, the desire to overcome difficulties and obstacles at all cost forcibly"

From 'Midpoints' by Michael Munkasey:

"Endurance and persistence used in the services of others for personal gain, frustration in achieving goals despite inner fortitude and persistence, a forceful hard-driving personality, lessened personal power"

Where Saturn represents 'authority' in all its themes and permutations, the Mars/Pluto midpoint represents 'the use and abuse of power'. The three-planet combination of Saturn-Mars-Pluto is one of incredible and indomitable will, extreme toughness, and authoritarian forcefulness.

It can be a very dark combination, where the lower impulses of human nature are to the fore. And it can also be relevant to being held captive, whether literally or figuratively; one of Zimbardo's other main areas of work is shyness, which he describes as a situation where a single person is both guard and prisoner.

Conclusion

There is so much more in this chart that could be discussed, however focusing on this midpoint structure goes straight to the heart of the experiment and directly to the parts of human nature that it evoked and researched.

Zimbardo's websites are linked below. Particularly valuable is the information he provides about how we can maintain pro-social behaviour as the norm and healthy human relations as the bedrock of our civilised societies. They are well worth a read so please do visit them and spread this knowledge.

References

NB These links are external to this site and therefore no responsibility can be taken for them. Clicking the links will open them in a new tab/window.

The Lucifer Effect
http://www.lucifereffect.com/

Philip Zimbardo's home page
http://www.zimbardo.com/

Stanford Prison Experiment
http://www.prisonexp.org/

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