Home     Site Map     Bulletin Board     Site Search



Aug, 2003

 Sleepers Awake!


by Charles Carreon
August, 2003



[In this review of the essential lessons to be drawn from the notorious "Zimbardo Prison Experiment," attorney Charles Carreon draws parallels between the Buddhist cult experience and the voluntary assumption of a prisoner-role. He concludes that, just as the experimental subjects in the prison experiment were unable to extricate themselves from the psychological bonds they assumed when they joined the experiment, similarly, the Buddhist cultist is unable to end cult servitude without the outside assistance that brings an "intrusion of reality." Modern American Buddhists must take up the work of knocking on the cocoons of modern Buddhist sleepers who have forgotten freedom in the dream of joyful subservience.]

You have probably heard about the Stanford Prison Experiment, aka "The Zimbardo experiment." Conducted in 1971 at Stanford by Philip Zimbardo, the study sought to uncover the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. Zimbardo set up a simulated prison to observe the effects of the institution on behavior.

Starting out with a single group of young men who volunteered to participate in the study for $15/day, Zimbardo randomly assigned half the participants to serve as prisoners, and half to serve as guards, for the duration of the experiment. The prisoners were arrested at their homes without notice by real police, and delivered to Zimbardo's custody. They were placed in a mock prison that had been created by fitting offices with barred doors to create cells, walling off a hallway for a common area, and establishing a special room for solitary confinement. The guards worked shifts and wore uniforms, including mirrorshade sunglasses. The prisoners wore smocks, a chain around the ankle, and stocking-coverings on their heads to simulate buzzcuts. Guards were given discretion to adopt rules and policing strategies as needed.

After one day, the participants had gotten so far into their adopted roles as prisoners or guards that they could no longer distinguish their role-playing from reality. Several prisoners experienced breakdowns, one went on a hunger strike, several served time in solitary confinement, and a rumored jailbreak never materialized but put the guards on red alert and overtime for an entire night. On the sixth day the experiment was halted, by which time one third of the guards were displaying sadistic tendencies, three prisoners had been released due to psychological breakdown, and Zimbardo himself had become absorbed in the role of prison warden.

While stone walls alone may not a prison make, Zimbardo was able to create a reasonable facsimile by using the following behavior triggers:

1. Arrest and confinement;

2. Notice of a rationale for the loss of freedom -- the warden informed prisoners of the seriousness of their offense and their new status as prisoners;

3. Procedures to make prisoners feel confused, fearful, and dehumanized, such as stripping, searching, blindfolding, delousing, and shaving their heads;

4. Providing uniforms for the prisoners that were debasing, emasculating and de-individualizing, and also chains around their feet;

5. I.D. numbers instead of names;

6. Badges, tools and uniforms of authority for the guards, such as khaki uniforms, whistles, billy clubs, and special mirror sun-glasses to prevent anyone from seeing their eyes and reading their emotions;

7. Small living cells and a minimally adequate diet;

8. Occasions for the guards to exercise control over the prisoners, such as the 2:30 a.m. wake-up count;

9. Lack of specific rules to guide guard behavior which led to use of physical punishment for infractions of the rules, or displays of improper attitudes towards the guards or institution, such as push-ups, jumping jacks; and menial, repetitive work such as cleaning toilets, psychological tactics of harassment, intimidation, control, surveillance and aggression, such as stripping the prisoners naked, taking their beds out, forcing prisoners into solitary confinement, and granting special privileges to make the prisoners distrust each other, as well as placing informants;

10. Manipulating appearances on “visiting day” to make the prison environment seem pleasant and benign; making the prisoners wash, shave, and clean their cells, and feeding the prisoners a big dinner, and playing music on the intercom, and having an attractive cheerleader greet the visitors.

What followed from the imposition of this regimen? A virtually immediate disconnection from reality and near-total absorption in the roles of prisoner or guard, including the gamut of pathological and coping behaviors.

Participants were helpless to re-start their former sense of independence. Prisoners referred to themselves by number, obeyed the rules because they felt powerless to resist, and because their sense of reality had shifted to no longer perceiving their imprisonment as an experiment.

Even though they hated their situation, none of the prisoners asserted their right to terminate the experiment, a right that they unquestionably never lost, since the criminal laws against unjust imprisonment remain in effect. Many suffered from acute emotional disturbance, disorganized thinking, and uncontrollable crying and rage. One prisoner testified that he felt he had lost his identity and had in fact become his number. Another had to be forcibly reminded that he was not a prisoner, and could leave since his health required it. “Like a child waking from a nightmare,” Zimbardo described the young man’s face as he realized that he was a free man.

None of the guards voiced unwillingness to proceed with the experiment, and in fact were extraordinarily punctual and volunteered extra time when prisoner rebellions required it. Some of the guards were hostile, arbitrary, and inventive in their forms of prisoner humiliation and appeared to thoroughly enjoy the power they wielded. Most were upset when the study was prematurely ended.

We noticed some similarities between the Zimbardo experiment and religious cult behavior, including:

1. Voluntary entry into a system that limits freedom of action and speech;

2. Imposition of a doctrine that rationalizes the loss of freedom as being in the best interests of the members and makes students feel confused and fearful;

3. Using dharma names instead of real names;

4. Establishment of a hierarchy of authority;

5. Adoption of badges of authority by those in the dominant position;

6. Adoption of signs of submission on the part of subordinate members;

7. Lack of modern rules to guide behavior, and many aspects of students' behavior falling under the control of the leaders;

8. Small living spaces; and a minimally adequate diet;

9. Occasions to exercise control;

10. Physical exercise; menial, repetitive work; psychological tactics of intimidation and control; special privileges;

11. Manipulating the situation to make the environment seem pleasant and benign.

By adopting these rules, the students lose their connection with the self that existed before becoming a cult member. The loss of identification with the former self that voluntarily chose to enter cult society, develops into rejection of that former self as a pitiful fool or stubborn blockhead. Students compete within dharma society for authoritarian roles. Students begin to identify with the cult system adopting its social norms as their own rejecting any suggestion that their loss of freedom is undesirable.

Clearly role-playing games are a form of psychological quick-sand. Role playing is addictive, and evidence shows that role-playing participants feel psychologically compelled to continue role-playing because of interpersonal self-esteem issues, commitments and vows. Once it happens, you are indeed a prisoner. Like in the song Hotel California, “you can check out anytime you like but you can never leave.”

Another shocking piece of data from the Zimbardo experiment is the rapidity with which the transformation occurred, and the power of behavioral triggers to induce psychological assimilation of role characteristics, such as the emergence of genuine sadistic traits among 1/3 of the "guards." Guards and prisoners quickly identified each other as adversaries in a game of dominance that the guards were fated to win, stimulating the creativity and paranoid strategizing of the guards to outwit and frustrate prisoners' bids for dignity and freedom. To the guards, freedom itself became the enemy in short order. For the prisoners, release became the only goal towards which they could progress, but since no act of theirs would assist in reaching that goal, they became fragmented and depressed.

The only threats to the experimental mindset were occasional incursions of reality. A "prisoner" who became deranged was derided as a faker, trying to cheat his way out of participation, until at last his behavior became so outlandish, that his actual insanity had to be acknowledged. Another psychologist, Christina Maslach, delivered the reality-based insight that brought the experiment to a halt when she saw that the abuse of the "prisoners" by the "guards" had become frighteningly inhumane. This fact had apparently escaped Dr. Zimbardo himself, who perhaps unwisely placed himself in the position of prison "warden," a role from which he found it psychologically impossible to remove himself.

Eruptions of reality seem to provide the only opportunity to break out of self-disempowering role playing.

So since people cannot re-assert their ability to think and act freely after having renounced freedom of speech and action, the spell of the role playing must be broken through by the intrusion of reality outside of the role playing environment. It is unlikely that the individual will generate this force from within, once the role playing process has gotten underway. While this renunciation of freedom may seem to be a matter of voluntary choice, similar to the decision to become a heroin addict, inasmuch as the renunciation of individual freedom undermines political democracy, it may lead to the establishment or strength of overtly authoritarian regimes. Thus, it is well within our rights of political self-protection to strike that blow of intrusive reality that can break open the cocoon of self-delusion that the role player inhabits. While many individuals, cocooned away in their voluntarily adopted subordinate role, may perceive such criticism as an assault on their freedom of belief, an annoying distraction from the effort to become fully absorbed in their assumed role, the racket that they are objecting to is being raised for their own benefit.

Structuring roles is very important. We have to get out of bad roles and it's fair to go around knocking on people's cocoons and telling them what's going on. That's called helping people out. Because they are deluded. It is something genuinely for their benefit. Inducing vow-breaking is fair and what we should do is shine the light on the situation.