Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Guest Post: The Stanford Prison Experiment by Dylan Callens

The Stanford Prison Experiment

In Interpretation, Carl wakes up in an institution that is part psych-ward and part prison.  The building itself, I imagined being similar to an old asylum known as Bedlam.  More interestingly, however, the way that the guards behave in the novel was inspired by the Stanford Prison Experiment.

There is a section in the novel where the antagonist, an artificial intelligence known as psychology, designs an experiment based on Philip Zimbardo’s notes on the prison experiment.  Since Psychology is constantly running experiments, I figured that the prison itself should be a part of that process.  So, what was the Stanford Prison Experiment?

Conducted in 1971 by Philip Zimbardo in the basement of Stanford University, the experiment was supposed to show how prison guards and convicts would slip into predefined roles, behaving in a way that they thought was required.  Zimbardo thought that both groups would abandon their own judgements and morals in favor of conforming to their roles.

What happened, however, was unexpected.

Subjects were randomly assigned to play the role of either prisoner or guard.  On the day that the experiment was about to start, the Palo Alto Police Department arrested the prisoners, deloused them, and gave them prison garments.  They then transferred the group to the makeshift jail.

Day one went more or less as predicted.  There was nothing particularly surprising. 

On day two, however, a few inmates blockaded the cell entrance.  In order to stop this, extra guards volunteered to work overtime to fix the situation.  They attacked the inmates with fire extinguishers. 

After quickly learning that it was difficult to control nine prisoners with three guards, the guards attempted to control the prisoners with rewards and punishments.  For example, those that did not participate in the ‘riot’ were rewarded with higher quality meals.  Those prisoners, however, did not eat the meals, in solidarity with the other prisoners.

The problems escalated.  Guards mentally and physically abused the prisoners.  Sanitary conditions declined rapidly.  Prisoners were sometimes not allowed to use the toilet.  Instead, they were forced to use a bucket, which they were not allowed to empty.  Mattresses and clothing were taken away from some prisoners and they were forced to sleep naked on the concrete floor.  Clearly, many of the guards were showing very sadistic tendencies.

Soon after, one inmate showed signs of great mental distress, to the point where he had to be removed from the experiment.  A replacement prisoner for the one that left as a result of mental distress was introduced to the prison.  He was instructed to go on a hunger strike in order to help improve the conditions in the prison.  Instead of being welcomed, he was seen as a trouble maker that was going to make things worse for them.  Because of his hunger strike, the new prisoner was placed in solitary confinement.  The other prisoners banged on walls and taunted him while he was in confinement. 

On the sixth day of the study, a graduate student, Christina Maslach, came to view the experiment.  Upon seeing the poor condition of the prisoners, she asked Zimbardo to stop.  She convinced him to end the experiment on day six of what was supposed to be a two week experiment.

The results show us a few interesting things.  First, the result favor situational attribution over dispositional attribution.  That is to say, the situation, rather than their personalities, caused the participant’s behavior.  Second, the experiment illustrates cognitive dissonance theory.  Cognitive dissonance theory states that individuals seek consistency in their beliefs and opinions and when there is an inconsistency, something must change to eliminate the dissonance.  In this case, their attitudes and behaviors had to change to suit their roles.    

Third, participants’ behavior was modified when they were being observed.  This is called the Hawthorne Effect.  Whenever a participant believed that they were being observed, they acted according to how they thought they should act.  When they knew that there was no one watching, participants acted quite a bit differently.

In my novel, I wanted to imagine what an artificial intelligence might come up with if it ran its own prison experiment.  The prison scenes are only a small part of the novel but I wondered what such a place might look like in a dystopian setting.  I found this thought experiment very fascinating to write.

About the Book:
Carl Winston awakens to find his son, Liam, screaming with fear. Trying to understand why, Carl tries to soothe him. Neighbors gather in front of Carl’s apartment to help – until they see him. The crowd cowers back, afraid of this monster. 

Carl runs. His life of luxury is ripped away. Forced beyond the city limits, Carl sees a land bereft of life. Traveling in search of answers, his quest comes to a sudden halt when he collapses. As darkness shrouds him, a figure hovers from above. 

Traveling along the same route, Eva Thomspon finds Carl and nurtures him back to life. Together, they continue the journey, finding out that their lives have too much in common to be a coincidence. As their affection for each other deepens, an unknown nemesis attempts to remove their only source of happiness – their love for each other.

Interpretation is a dystopian fiction that explores hope and happiness in the bleakest of conditions and what happens when it’s torn away.
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About the Author:
Dylan Callens
Dylan Callens lands cleanly. That would be the headline of a newspaper built with an anagram generator. And although Dylan is a Welsh name meaning god or hero of the sea, he is not particularly fond of large bodies of water. His last name, Callens, might be Gaelic. If it is, his last name means rock. Rocks sink in the sea. Interestingly, he is neither Welsh nor Gaelic, but rather, French and German. The inherent contradictions and internal conflict in his life are obvious.
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Carl closed his eyes and tried to laugh at himself.  Barely a squeak left his mouth.  What was he thinking, trying to enter this godforsaken wasteland by himself with no supplies?  Still on his back, he dreamed about opening a bottle of Ocean Surge.  Wet bubbles danced against his tongue, bathing his taste buds with refreshing fruit-infusion – small bursts of happiness made his lips sing an ode to joy. 
But forget that fantasy; sulfur-ridden tap water would be just as good.  Carl knew the taste would not equate, but its effect would invigorate.  Carl smiled, his eyes wide open, staring into the dimming sky, into the nothingness that surrounded him.  Gulp after glorious gulp of imaginary liquid until he couldn’t keep up, showering his face with it until a puddle formed around him.  That puddle turned into an ocean and Carl sank to the bottom, his faint breath weakening further.  The light grew dimmer.  He tried to reach up, to reach out of the depths of his hallucination, but his arms felt too heavy, as if the pressure at this depth couldn’t be overcome. 
A shadow hovered over him.  Carl tried to speak to it, but words didn’t make sense.  The shadow spoke back with a meaningless, muffled slur.  Water entered Carl’s mouth, nearly choking him.  Nonetheless, the delicious wet felt so good, like ocean refreshment in every bottle.  That was the slogan, right?  Carl laughed or cried, he couldn’t tell.  For all he knew, he was dead.  The shadow grew, saying something that he couldn’t work his mind around.  Darker. Darker.  Clock, what the hell was that clock song?  Darker. The shadow drew nearer.  Or maybe it was the darkness.  It was bought on the morn of the day that he was born, And was always his treasure and pride… Ah yes, there it is.  But it stopped short – never to go again – When the old man died.  That’s the one.  Darkness.

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