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A Journey Backwards : The Stanford prison experiment

【明報專訊】IN 1971, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment to test whether the prison environment contributes to brutal behaviour reported among American prison guards. The result is a good reference for Hong Kong at this juncture.

In this experiment, the researchers converted a basement into a prison, where 24 volunteers were selected to role-play prison guards and prisoners respectively. Each guard was issued with a uniform and told to maintain law and order in the prison at all cost and command the respect of the prisoners. Officially, no physical violence was permitted.

On the other hand, prisoners were stripped naked, deloused and removed of any personal belongings once they reached the prison. They were given prisoners' clothes and assigned a bed within a cell.

Very soon, the guards started asserting their authority by subjecting the inmates to insults, petty tasks, physical punishments and more. The inmates soon attempted to rebel and assert their human rights, which was met with more force and insults. Thereafter, the level of psychological and physical harm attempted by the guards escalated to a point where some of the prisoners underwent extreme psychological stress. The prisoners were screaming and crying hysterically in response to the worsening conditions in the prison, bringing the experiment to a premature halt after six days.

When asked, many of those who role-played the guards could not have imagined the level of brutality they committed. Especially when the prisoners were called by their numbers instead of their name, they felt absolutely empowered to brutalise them, just like they would do unto objects. Most of the guards also admitted that power was a tempting pleasure that made one forget about human decency.

Hong Kong is nearly six months into a mass protest where front-line police were given unchecked powers to dehumanise and brutalise protesters.

Supporters of the police often argue that the police are only human, and therefore prone to power abuse. The Stanford prison experiment clearly illustrates that. We cannot ask a mere human being to fight the social conditions that permit them to abuse power endlessly. Therefore, it is up to the authorities to remove such conditions that encourage power abuse and impose a clear set of guidelines and punishment on excessive brutality used by the law-enforcement body. Such guidelines are not only to protect the arrested people, but also to prevent the law-enforcement body from performing the kind of violence they might not even realise in the first place.

Human decency is a thin facade that requires a lot of pretexts. It is in everybody's interest to create the conditions needed for it to flourish.

■Writer's Profile

Mona C. has a strong appetite for stories. Feed her enough.

Email: monafpchu@gmail.com

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