Power Trip


Twenty-four college students participated in a simulation conducted by Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo of Stanford University in 1971. The students were randomly divided into “prisoners” and “guards” and asked to play out the roles in a replicated prison built in the basement of the Psychology Department.

The study was planned for two weeks but had to be ended after just six days because of the impact it was having on the students’ psyche. In a very short period of time, the “guards” became sadistic, and the “prisoners” gave in to despair. Even Dr. Zimbardo admitted that he lost objectivity as he was sucked into his role of prison superintendent.

The “guards” were told only that they could do whatever was necessary (within limits) to maintain law and order and to ensure compliance from the prisoners. From those few instructions, the “guards”:

  • subjected the “prisoners” to late night count sessions, where “prisoners” were woken up and forced to identify themselves by their prison numbers, sometimes for hours at a time.
  • forced “prisoners” to do frequent pushups while a “guard” either put his foot on their backs or had another “prisoner” sit on them.
  • stripped the “prisoners” naked in order to harass and intimidate them.
  • required “prisoners” to clean out toilet bowls with their bare hands.
  • made “prisoners” urinate or defecate into a bucket in their cell, occasionally not allowing them to empty their buckets.

The “prisoners” staged a rebellion, but it was put down when the “guards” sprayed all the “prisoners” with fire extinguishers, forced their way into the cells, stripped the “prisoners” naked and sequestered the leaders into solitary confinement cells.

The “guards” then set about to break the solidarity of the “prisoners” by creating a “privilege” cell and allowing some of the prisoners to receive advantages over the others, such as clothes, toothbrushes and special foods (the other prisoners were forced to fast during this time). After a half-day of privilege, some of the “good prisoners” were moved into the cells of the “bad prisoners” and vice-versa. As a result, “prisoners” began to distrust each other, thinking that the ones from the privilege cell were now informants for the “guards.”

Less than 36 hours into the experiment, one “prisoner” (#8612) fell into uncontrollable sobbing and rage and had to be released. Over the next days, he was followed by four others, who so suffered from emotional distress that they couldn’t continue with the experiment. Another “prisoner” went on a hunger strike in an attempt to force his release. Yet another developed a rash over his entire body when he was told that his parole request had been turned down.

On the sixth day, the experiment had to be halted, because video footage revealed that “guards” had escalated their abuse of the “prisoners.” In the middle of the night when they thought no one was watching, they were forcing the “prisoners” to strip naked and pretend to perform acts of sodomy on one another.

All this from men who had been selected for the simulation specifically because they had tested normally in all the psychological tests performed before the experiment. How could this happen and happen so quickly?

In a recent interview, Dr. Zimbardo said, “It’s not that we put bad apples in a good barrel. We put good apples in a bad barrel. The barrel corrupts anything that it touches.”

His finding reflects another truth. The barrel does corrupt, but it’s much larger than he thinks. The world is our barrel, and while it may have been created good, it’s fallen under the influence of an evil caretaker. Each of us (the apples) were created by God to be good, but we were born into a corrupted barrel, and we are guilty by association.

You may read the account above and think, “I would never act like those guards.” “I would stand up for what was right.” And maybe you would, but without Christ, it’s more likely that you would act in just the same way. As Lord Acton of Britain once said, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The seed of every sin we can imagine is hidden in our hearts. Our only sure defense against depravity is Christ. Without Him, our moral fiber is not nearly as strong as we would like to think. With Him, we get a new barrel. When we accept Jesus as our Savior, He moves us from the bad barrel to the good. But while our spirit has changed barrels, our bodies can’t go there just yet; there’s too much work left to be done.

What causes us problems, and what leads us into sin is that we sometimes forget we’ve been given a new spiritual barrel. Like the prisoners in the study, we lose sight of the fact that we are free, that we don’t have to submit to this barrel’s warden. Living in the old barrel demoralizes us, and we start to play the roles he wants us to play. Because our surroundings seem so real, our freedom seems distant and illusory.

In truth, he has no real power over us – only the power we allow him to convince us he has. At any moment (in every moment), we could have our freedom, but instead, we allow him to harass and intimidate us. We stay voluntarily in a prison of our own sin and low self-image. Though we long to be free, we don’t think it’s possible.

What barrel do you think you are in today? And what impact is it having on your life? If you want to move to Christ’s barrel, it’s as simple as asking Him to move you. And if you’re already in the good barrel, believe it! You are free! The only reason you are still in this prison is to help others escape.

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3 Comments

Filed under Religion, self-image, sin, Spirituality

3 responses to “Power Trip

  1. Wow. You always give me something to think about. I have consider something similar to this before. One parallel is the seemingly normal people we send into situations like the Guantanamo detention or a combat situation. Either of these seem to put ordinary people into very backward personal situations.

    I often think parenting can do this to some people. You get a totally rational person that can turn into just about anything given the right parameters.

    One thing I always tell people is that you never know what you are capable of and that judging people for their actions in any kind of an extreme situations is not for us.

    Prayerfully seeking Him and having Him and His word in our hearts will help us in any situation we find ourselves in.

  2. Great response. You made me think with the parenting part; sometimes I wonder where that “other person” in me comes from. It’s a dangerous responsibility to have full authority over someone else.

  3. I think the other person is our experiences or even our lack of experience. Flawed as we are we all try to be everything we wanted our own parents to be and often fall flat on our faces

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