Cruelty, Dave Eshelman, John Wayne, Philip Zimbardo, Prison, Prisons, Social Psychology, Stanford Prison Experiment, Theater
You’ve probably encountered the Stanford Prison Experiment in your psychology textbook, or perhaps heard about it in some other conversation. Ostensibly a study of the influence of power and authority on human behavior, the experiment (so the story goes) had to be closed down because it was all too successful. Dr. Philip Zimbardo set up a faux-prison in the psychology building at Stanford University and began recruiting test subjects. Having divided his subjects randomly into a pool of guards and another pool of prisoners, Zimbardo soon found the conflict between the guards and the prisoners had escalated beyond control. Zimbardo has spent his career describing the study as proof that good people will become monsters under the right circumstances.
Such circumstances would appear to include a badge and a uniform. …or perhaps a tenure-track professorship.
What fascinates me most about this story is the role that one guard, Dave Eshelman, played in setting the tone for the experiment. If the experiment was designed to illustrate the dehumanizing characteristics of power, Eshelman’s behavior took that message to 11. Aside from the possibility that his decisions may have thrown the whole study off, Eshelman’s personal experiments in cruelty are themselves worthy of serious scrutiny. Eshelman explained his approach to the project as follows:
I arrived independently at the conclusion that this experiment must have been put together to prove a point about prisons being a cruel and inhumane place. And therefore, I would do my part, you know, to, to help those results come about. I was a confrontational and arrogant, uh, 18-year old at the time, and uh, you know, I said, somebody ought to stir things up here.
I made the decision that I would be as intimidating, as cold, as cruel as possible. …I had just watched a movie called Cool-Hand Luke, and uh, the mean intimidating uh, you know southern prison ward character in that film, really was my inspiration for the role that I had created for myself.
Fittingly, Eshelman adopted a southern accent for the experiment and engaged in a deliberate campaign of cruelty against the prisoners. It might be ironic that Eshelman’s emulation of Strother Martin earned him the nickname of John Wayne, or perhaps it’s just damned appropriate, but anyway, …that’s two movie references for the price of one villainous act.
Eshelman’s approach to the experiment is fascinating on many levels. He knows he is participating in an experiment, and he takes this as license (even incentive) to perform experiments on his own initiative. His personal experiment is theatrical in nature; Eshelman is enacting sadistic themes borrowed from a Hollywood film with the end result being a drama fit for a textbook.
But of course someone had to live through that drama, and I’m not talking about Eshelman.
What’s interesting here is the blurring of the lines between real cruelty and its occurrence in a theatrical performance. If Eshelman’s behavior was simply a performance, the scope of his audience isn’t entirely clear. Was it for Zimbardo? The prisoners? The Scientific community? Himself? Perhaps Eshelman’s performance was a kind of singularity, so to speak, an act that simply had to happen (in his view at any rate). Perhaps, his display of cruelty held some kind of meaning independent of any particular audience.
But of course this was an interactive performance, and at least a big part of Eshelman’s audience would have to include the very people he subjected to cruelty in that performance. If Eshelman respected any boundaries, his cruelty certainly violated others (and yes this is one reason why we don’t do experiments like this anymore folks, …at least I hope not). The prisoners actually did feel the impact of Eshelman’s actions, and some (Clay Ramsay, prisoner 416 in particular) clearly described Eshelman’s behavior as genuinely harmful. If Ramsay was part of the audience, and he most certainly was, then he certainly did not experience Eshelman’s cruelty as an artistic or intellectual matter. Ramsay clearly felt harmed by the experiment.
Perhaps the most interesting exchange in first the film clip above above comes at minute 25, when Eshelman and Ramsay (prisoner 416) talk to one another as part a debriefing process. The two of them do not appear to have shaken off their respective roles in that moment. Eshelman is still taking charge of the conversation. He still dominates his former prisoner, and takes it upon himself to set Ramsay straight about the whole project. If Eshelman’s behavior was an act, the act clearly wasn’t over in that debriefing session.
…and thus cruelty escaped it’s narrative.
The Stanford Alumni Magazine has an excellent retrospective piece on the subject, including statements from participants 40 years on. Eshelman’s own thoughts are definitely worth looking at. Both of Eshelman’s pictures featured above were taken from this article.
Adventures in Kevin's World said:
Thanks for so regularly writing thought-provoking articles…. always good stuff.
Did you see this Frontline documentary where the teacher tries to teach the children about racism by dividing the class into two groups. Watching it, I couldn’t help thinking that a less sensitive teacher could let it get out of hand. I had not been aware of Eshelman’s role in the Stanford experiment. Perhaps if there had been someone like that in this classroom, the experience wouldn’t be so warmly remembered.
Oh yes. I have another post waiting on that topic, and I know at least one person who tried the eye-experiment. She just said she would never do it again.
The Iowa school in the documentary appears to be part of a tight-knit homogenous community. I don’t think the experiment could have worked in my elementary school where about one third of the students were Jewish. The fact that we all seemed so blissfully unaware of that and other ethnic differences was probably a delicate state of affairs.
Later, we moved and my high school was about forty percent black. We were less unaware there, but it was overall a pretty pleasant place. However, a lesson like that, besides being somewhat unnecessary, could have really made a mess. I always thought the adults underestimated how much effort the kids consciously made to have a peaceful environment.
Wow great documentary Fojap
Maria Falvey (@acceleratedstal) said:
Provocative, indeed. I’m with you on the hope there aren’t more “tests” like this one.
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And the White Lion Roars! said:
Reblogged this on zeuschariot and commented:
Interesting take on something presented quite differently in my college classroom.
And the White Lion Roars! said:
“What we have here….” is then an experiment in pack behavior and not on the effect of power on a “regular guy’s” behavior. If Eshelman had told the other “guards” his game, everything might have turned out differently. BTW, I’m offended, as a southerner, that the accent in that clip is referred to as “southern.” Pardon the use of a desperately un-PC term, but he sounded like, well, someone with serious mental challenges, who had trouble learning how to get words formed at all.
Chuck Burton said:
Not correct. From the first evening Dave shared what he was trying to do with me. My own choices were my own responsibility
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Chuck Burton said:
As Dave’s unheralded sidekick on the infamous night shift, I have a unique window onto what he was really thinking. The experimenters “set us up” into believing that we had the responsibility of creating a genuine prison ambience in a very short period of time, and without any threat of real physical violence. Of course this opened the door to unspeakable mental violence. Whatever else he believed, he chose a model to accomplish this seemingly impossible task and stuck to it. On that level it was a pure act. In our private moments we were just two hippie college students sharing the zeitgeist of the late sixties and early seventies. None of this is meant to excuse his cruelties – nor mine.
What did you say about the cruelty of your tasks when you talked to each other off duty?
Chuck Burton said:
We didn’t see each other of duty. Like any other job, you put in your eight hours and went home. And during the experiment we simply did not see what we were doing as cruel, just as fulfilling our perceived assignments. That all came later. So no, we not once communicated in the way you are looking for. And what I was trying to communicate in my comment, we were all playing roles in one way or another. But for Dave it was more so. He chose a persona and subsumed himself completely, the way any really successful actor and actress does. Meryl Streep is a perfect example and it is what makes her so brilliant. You shouldn’t confuse the role with the actual individual.
I’ve always been curious specifically of Eschelman’s part in the experiment. This was super insightful
wow – i’ve always been fascinated/horrified by these experiments. interesting that they weren’t able to shake off their roles in the debriefing. thanks for reading and following my words, and i look forward to doing the same – best, beth
Chuck Burton said:
I am not sure where you get the idea that we couod not shake off our roles during debriefing. There were two “detox” meetings in the first month after the experiment. In the first there was a great deal of uneasiness and some animosity, mostly from former prisoners directed at us former guards. By the second we pretty much had all reverted to what we were, a bunch of hippie guys sitting around ralking.
‘Perhaps the most interesting exchange in first the film clip above above comes at minute 25, when Eshelman and Ramsay (prisoner 416) talk to one another as part a debriefing process. The two of them do not appear to have shaken off their respective roles in that moment. Eshelman is still taking charge of the conversation. He still dominates his former prisoner, and takes it upon himself to set Ramsay straight about the whole project. If Eshelman’s behavior was an act, the act clearly wasn’t over in that debriefing session.”
Chuck Burton said:
No, as I said , it took a while. Things were clearly tense in the first meetings of the aftermath. I have stated in other posts, that I was the only one in the entire experiment to interact at length with Dave when he was not into his role. The night shifts were long and quite boring when the prisoners were asleep. At those moments we had long and intimate conversations young man to young man outside of our guard personae. I learned that he was entirely committed to his assumed role, and it is not surprising that he did not shake it immediately, particularly understanding the extremely abrubt manner in which the experiment ended
That makes sense to me. Thank you very much for coming to post here. I’m sorry, I missed it when you came earlier as the post was already well back in my que. I am really happy now to have found your comments now as it helps me to understand what you had in mind.
That’s definitely the way I read the clip in question. As I understand it, Chuck is saying that dynamic was gone by the end of the second debriefing.
Chuck Burton said:
The SPE was one of the seminal experiences of my life, and I am always glad to discuss it, including the most uncomfortable aspects
It looks to me like she is referring to the specific debriefing featured in the video. I gather that was the first one?
Chuck Burton said:
No doubt. After forty five years I remember few specifics. In any case it was a process.
I don’t know if you will see this, but if you do, I am wondering if you’ve been following some of the new stuff coming out about the experiment in the last couple years? One article even quotes your comments here.
I’ve known people who can take on a certain persona and stay in for a long time…it’s scary. I’ve seen the experiment on TV, he should of had a phyc review ( or maybe he did) before to see if he was suitable for the role…..but then his cruelty probably grew from a deep dark hole of ambiguity, even unknown by him.
Thanks for following! I’ll return the favour! Cheers! 🙂 Lb
Chuck Burton said:
All 125 of us applicants had an interview and took standard psychological tests (of the era). The experimentors chose the group who seemed most emotionally stable. Since I worked more closely with Dave than anyone in the experiment, I know that he consciously adapted his persona from the movie Cool Hand Luke and utilized it to further the aims of the experiment. On the night shift we had few moments of excitement and long hours of boredom. During those hours we were just two normal college students hanging out. I observed no inherent cruel streak in him, and at 66 I can say that any cruelty inside me is extremely minimal. As for the aftermath, whatever spell the SPE put on me – and there definitely was one – dissipated within days. Perhaps you have known people like that, but I suggest rhat they take on their persona in order to cope with their real life and decide to keep it because it is effective for them. The transitoriness of an experiment is quite a different milieu.
So True! it is different… Thanks for commenting!
Shawshank Inmate said:
I feel like all you’re doing is making excuses. Just my opinion. Dave, your buddy, did some pretty messed up things – that’s it! Are you still in the experiment or something? It’s like you have Stockholm and you’re desperately trying to make normal people excuse the actions of someone purely because he “consciously planned it” … well, that’s even worse! It’s likely that the experiment probably would not have gotten as bad as it did, if he had not of muddied the results, but conducting his own experiment (his own admission)! The last two sentences of your paragraph can literally be said for Dave; perhaps HE took on the persona in order to cope with his real life and decided to keep it because it gave him power and was effective for HIM. This experiment should have never been done, it literally resulted in NO prison reform whatsoever, and put decent people through hell.
Chuck Burton said:
Confused. Are you blaming the experimentors or us kids who didn’t know shit. I’m not trying to justify anything, certainly not my own behavior, but I do like to process why I did it, which you could never understand not being there. The Stockholm Syndrome is a laugh. I moved on 45 years ago. The experiment should have never happened, nor Abu Ghraib or any of that shit, but it still does. Soldiers or experiment subjects are nothing but pawns, and their behaviors are normal responses to sick environments which is exactly what the SPE demonstrated. And for that reason it was extremely valuable.
Thanks for subscribing to my blog, Daniel.
Here you’ll find more than 5 500 ‘full screen pictures’ from Norway.
Yes, I have read the research on this experiment with a great deal of questions being generated from it. Ya see I have spent the past 39 years in the field of social work and have worked with emotionally disturbed, mentally retarded, juvenile delinquents, oncology and child and adult protective services. The last 29 years of my career I worked with the NYS prison system raising to the administrative ranks. Therefore I seriously challenge the experiment and although it has some merit it is not altogether accurate. Prisons have a definite place in society and I have seen countless people change their lives as a result of incarceration. Now that I am retired I actively assist people coming out to the streets and help them get back into society as a support for them. Just some thoughts from someone with some experience in the field.
that little voice said:
Welcome to that little voice and thank you for following my blog.
I just discovered you on WordPress, and now my mind is blown! Thank you for your thoughts on the study, but more than that, thank you for giving readers the Stanford Prison Experiment reference. How clear an explanation it gives for at least some of the tragic events that are occurring on a daily basis.
I have the uncomfortable feeling, living here in Austria, that the US has just embarked on a giant ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’ after the recent presidential elections. I hope I’m wrong. See two earlier articles “The Third Wave in American Politics” (August 2016) and “The Decline of the Rest” (October 2017) on my blog at aviott.org for more comments. Thanks for your interesting post.
Chuck Burton said:
As one of the guards in the SPE, the son of a Holocaust refugee, a lifeling war protester and one who rejects the pathology of Trumpism in all its ugliness, I can’t agree with this comparison. The experimenters in the SPE were too clever for their own good, and entered into an unethical devil’s bargain with their Eyes Wide Shut. The 25% minority of eligible US voters who did not even constitute a plurality to elect this man, did so out of abject ignorance after suffering a lifetime of propaganda. A larger plurality share their shame by not recognizing the value of voting. The sins of the educated and the uneducated may be compared in their malignity, but hardly spring from equivalent origins.
Every comparison has its limitations, and as one historian specializing in the Nazi era (I will see if I can find him) noted, Trump does not share a lot of the ideological assumptions of fascists. Still, I can’t help thinking there are some worthwhile points of comparison, not the least of them being the nature of a protest vote (Trump fans tell us more about Hillary and Obama than they do their own guy, just as many who voted for the Nazis had more to say against the prevailing gov., than in praise of him. To this we could add; extreme xenophobia (including a penchant for likening some groups to diseases), and a celebration of nationalism (along with a penchant for interpreting the nation in racist terms). All of this would create some real opportunities for atrocities. They will be carried out in the margins, of course, and the rest of us will always have plausible deniability, but I still think the conditions are there.
I fear you may be right about the U.S. in any event. So many warnings have become recommendations to the American public.
Chuck Burton said:
The DSA (Divided States of America) is a large, regional nation with tremendous diversity.. It is pluralistic in one package the way the world is, which has always been its greatest strength. Let us not forget is that only about one quarter of the adult population voted for Trump. They may have far too much political power in relation to their numbers, but millions of us are emphatically resistant. Sincerely yours, Chuck Burton, Dave Eshelman’s (John Wayne) unheralded sidekick on the notorious night shift.
Timeless Classics -- Poetry by Ana Daksina said:
Reblogging this to my sister site Success Inspirers World
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I may just be being dim but I can’t see the clip that is mentioned when you say: ‘Perhaps the most interesting exchange in first the film clip above above comes at minute 25, when Eshelman and Ramsay (prisoner 416) talk to one another as part a debriefing process.’ I only see the Cool Hand Luke video…..
It’s one of my older posts. The youtube video must have gone down. I’ll see if I can find a replacement.
I came across a book on the experiment two months ago, and, as a researcher on language and power, I immediately became very interested, and wanted to know more. I specifically wanted to know whether Eshelman ever apologised to the prisoners after the experiment, and if not, why.
From Zimbardo’s book Lucifer Effect, and the TV interview a few months after the SPE, Eshelman didn’t seem to want to apologise. His attitude was especially apparent when he was still trying to talk over Ramsay during the TV interview. By saying he was just doing an experiment, it was as if he was saying he actually had the conscience, but just wanted to test how far evil could go without check as a scientist. Sorry but it sounded like an excuse more than anything really.
My take is, if this person never showed remorse for the suffering he caused, he didn’t seem to actually think he did something wrong. In fact, quite a number of prisoners said in the post-experiment interviews that, while they could tell other guards were nice people behind the guard facet, John Wayne seemed to genuinely enjoy abusing the prisoners. It’s hard to buy the hypothesis that he was just putting up an act, because, if it was really an act, however good an act he put during the experiment, he should still feel remorseful (or at least apologetic) afterwards.
Recent revelation (by Blum and Le Texiar) shows that, instead of the prison environment which was responsible for such evil attitudes and acts, it was actually the leaders (Zimbardo and Jeffe especially) who instilled the wickedness in the guards, not by casting a spell, but by insisting that the abuse was for the greater good. Maybe, after all, Eshelman thought he was doing something good, so even after the experiment, he still thought he didn’t do anything wrong, and therefore needed not to apologise?
I really wanted to know whether Eshelman ever apologise to the prisoners in the two de-tox meetings. Unfortunately, I only found a 28-minute clip from the Stanford archive and couldn’t tell whether it was the first or second meeting.
Michael Godleski said:
Zimbardo , his cohorts. and most of the guards should be in an actual prison.
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