Psychotherapy Off the Wall

Following the second World War there was a good deal of concern about how quite nice people, such as large numbers of Germans, could apparently accept inflicting pain and degradation on other human beings – as in the concentration camps. It was discovered that two factors were important: firstly, that the internees passively accepted the brutality inflicted upon them and, secondly, that the existing political attitudes permitted violence against them. It was this lethal combination which served to stimulate and release any sadistic feelings in those charged with confining the internees. It was partly because of this discovery that the Israelis decided never again to ‘sit back and take it’ – which may have led to at least some of the ‘stiff necked’ response of Israel to any sense of being victimized by others.
The way sadism works is well illustrated in an experiment. Zimbardo, a researcher at Stanford University, decided to find out what would happen if people became prisoners or guards. He advertised for students to serve as paid subjects in a research study. A bunch of nice college students volunteered. Zimbardo divided them at random into two groups, and assigned one group to serve as ‘the prisoners’ and the other group to serve as ‘the guards’. A set of wooden cells was constructed in a research space, and the ‘prisoners’ were installed in the cells, with the ‘guards’ to look after them – all in good, clean fun, right?
Well, the good clean fun turned out not to be fun at all. The prisoners, without prompting, started to act like prisoners. They became passive, submissive and accommodating. As if in response to these roles the prisoners were playing, the guards started to become exacting, demanding, demeaning and, yes, modestly sadistic. So profound were the changes which took place in the two groups of individuals that Zimbardo had to cancel the whole experiment within days. In fact one of the students playing the role of a prisoner became quite seriously disturbed in the experience. And similar kinds of observations have been made in a series of other studies trying to examine the same kind of thing.

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