Saturday, August 02, 2008

Stanford Prison Experiment and our Second Life®

In August of 1971, an advertisement appeared in the Palo Alto Times:

Male college students needed for psychological study of prison life. $15 per day for 1-2 weeks ...

What followed in response to this modest classified ad became a controversial and influential psychological experiment known as the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), led by Philip Zimbardo.

Over seventy men responded to the ad placed by the Stanford team intent on studying the effects of prison life; candidates were screened with diagnostic and personality tests to eliminate those with psychological disorders, medical disabilities or a history of criminal activity or drug abuse and 24 were selected.

By all accounts and diagnostic measures, those selected were an average group of "healthy, intelligent, middle-class males". Immersed inside a mock prison, candidates were randomly assigned roles of either guard or prisoner, dressed in clothing specific to their role. Prisoners were assigned numbers for identity and guards were allowed to play out the scenario with very high level guidelines for behavior. What followed in the short course of merely six days was astonishing.

  • The illusion became the reality.
  • The boundary between the role each person played and their personal identity was erased. This was true even for P. Zimbardo.
  • Nice men became brutal guards; healthy men fell ill and emotionally disturbed.
  • No one ever quit the experiment but five prisoners were released because of extreme emotional disturbance. These were replaced by stand-by candidates.

Prisoner #416 was added as a stand-by prisoner toward the end of the experiment and it was his individual actions to resist that split the fabric of the experiment, bringing it to a close after six days.

What did it feel like to be dropped into this situation mid-course and find yourself at odds? Prisoner #416 says the following:

...I began to feel that that identity, the person that I was - that had decided to go to prison - was distant from me, was remote until finally I wasn't that, I was 416. I was really my number, and 416 was going to have to decide what to do.

I have read numerous criticisms of SPE and the findings, but what has struck me most is the parallel we can draw to our Second Life® experiences - not by the power equation, although some may argue that Linden Lab is walking a fine line in that regard - but by our ability to distinguish and effectively respond to situational influences.

What happened in the SPE illustrates the very power of an immersive platform when combined with willingness to participate, to embrace a role so completely that we are #416, and to accept our surroundings as real.

The effect demonstrated by the SPE is the power of Second Life, the enormity of what we can become, good or bad, when we allow ourselves to be fully consumed - visually and audibly immersed - in the environment.

Have you ever noticed how often the words drama and Second Life appear together? This should be no surprise given the SPE results, but more importantly, must be a lesson to us as we find our way through the evolution of these virtual spaces.

We are at a new cross roads. We have found a place in which we can embrace the positive and powerful nature of a platform from which we can expand our personal influence, explore the many dimensions our identity, and discover the power of our most basic human interactions. However, we must do so responsibly, consciously and deliberately and when the situation should arise, I trust we all can find our own Prisoner #416.

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