Stanford Experiment: Revealing Inner Demons

Depression, Anxiety: There’s a seed of evil in all of us.


Stanford University’s 1977 psychology experiment incorporating a role-play exposed evil at our inner core.

I know it’s an old experiment but the factors that caused the spontaneous violence to occur back then are the very same today. Read closely and you’ll agree.

It was a simple social experiment: Volunteers signed up for a role-play. Wardens wore pressed uniforms and sunglasses. Prisoners wore simple smocks. A stocking covered their hair. Numbers replaced their names.

The play was to be held in the university’s basement – providing a suitable ‘prison’ backdrop for those acting out their parts.

There were no rules. All they had to do was cohabitate in the basement for two weeks.

Almost immediately, those dressed as wardens took on roles of authority. Those in prisoner outfits profiled themselves as subordinates.

Revealing Evil in StanfordWithin hours, the experiment turned nasty. Six days into the two-week program, a riot  had broken out. The police were called to break-up the players and ultimately end the study. What’d happened inside that basement was unprecedented.

Wardens felt super-empowered and the prisoner’s spiralled into deep submission. All had lost a sense of self. Some had lost a sense of time. Others believed that they were indeed part a true prison system.

It has become a benchmark moment in the study of psychology and sociology.

This proves two things to me:

  1. Evil is embedded into our psyche.
  2. The mind is extremely malleable.

Dissociation is usually the word accompanying outcomes like these. The imbalance of negative and good thoughts triggers dissociations. Personalities and behaviours change as a result.

I tend to disagree with the whole dissociation thing. It certainly sounds plausible enough. But launching a few keywords at a mental health issue and churning out a word at its end doesn’t  mean that it’s right. I feel dissociation is a clumsy term.

Here’s why:

Situational Dissociation isn’t dissociative, not for a sufferer. The term comes from an external viewpoint, one that relies upon a standard, a fixed point of reference from which to measure a sufferer’s change.

In my novel, I used the word reassociation, not dissociation. I believe that the malleable mind adapts to suit changing situations and realities; moving to allow new ones to exist in place of abandoned ones without damaging the mind’s existence during the transition.

Dissociation is not a suffer-level label. Yes, there’s a change in their demeanour but it’s a witness who’s experiencing the dissociation more and recognises it. (Ie: A husband sees his wife depressed after a loss of a child. The wife feels it’s necessary to be sad but the husband senses that it’s more than that and so seeks help for her.)

The dissociation is measured by the outsider from their perspective. In no way does it represent the sufferer’s point of view or diagnose the cause of the so-called dissociation.

In many cases, such as in our ’77 prison experiment, the sufferer is reassociating to a new situation. Something in their environment has caused their mind to alter.

They experience some of the changes but not the dissociation. At no time does their mind let go of one reality when it moves to reside in another. Its job is to survive and keep all necessary associations intact. It can’t alter environment so it augments thought and behaviour instead. It’s reassociation not disassociation.

In the experiment, the changes were sudden. The walls and clothes were an obvious environmental change that encouraged some mental ones to move. It gave those who studied the experiment a tidy bundle of quick data from with which to work.

Almost everyone inside the prison lost themselves inside an alternate but very real narrative.

It proves that the mind is extremely malleable, susceptible to environmental changes. Without familiar routines and a good foot inside one recognisable reality, the mind can and will reassociate with any other with ease.

There’s also some kind of primeval fright or flight construct involved during the more massive transitions. I believe this is yet another defense mechanism of the mind, one where it protects the body’s life while it decides its friends and foes.

Reality Checks-ins

Psychiatrists and mental health workers have long recommended a few simple techniques to reduce anxiety, stress, depression and a number of other mental health issues.

They say that touching the earth with the bare feet, watching a bird fly across the sky or allowing the sun’s rays to kiss the skin, will give a mind the opportunity to reach out and touch the edges of reality. Realigning our minds with it is one way to foster good thoughts and minimise the negative ones.

Brisbane River

Go outside! Breathe fresh air and touch the ground!

When I wrote SEETHINGS, I had the Stanford University psychological experiment in mind. Situational dissociation makes up a large part of the book. During the exploration of my characters, I discovered a unique way to shift a mind out of one reality and into one a lot less desirable. Just like the Stanford Prison Experiment, there’s an explosive conclusion. I hope you’ll enjoy another unprecedented journey into the world of mind-splitting.


(P.S. The whole Stanford Prison thing can be found here)


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