Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Stanford Prison Experiment

Yesterday, I watched the movie The Stanford Prison Experiment at The Lyric and I was mesmerized and hence today I watched it again. The movie absorbed me not only because it was a nicely made movie which captures the essence of the experiment which was conducted 34 years ago but also because it teaches so much about human nature, how our behaviors impact others, and what kind of responsibilities we have in order to ensure that our behavior does not harm others’ well-being. Given that I myself am an educator, and teach the first year engineering classes at Virginia Tech, it made me think of my position as an authority and how my comments, remarks, and attitude toward them in and outside the class might affect my students.

Given the fact that students see the instructors as an authority figure in class, especially in the undergraduate classes, I think I carry with me an immense amount of power when I enter a classroom to teach. I have the power to not only shape their learning but also direct how they see the world and see themselves in it. I can provide a learning environment which increases their confidence in their own self by validating their capacities to learn and by situating learning in their experiences. Such a learning environment will lead to a development of intellectual power, reflective judgement, self-confidence and integrity in my students. At the same time, by portraying learning as shared among their peers, I can teach them to value others’ cultures and viewpoints.

I do not only have the responsibility to ensure that the students develop self-confidence and respect for others through my teaching but also have the duty to ensure that I do not do anything which psychologically hurts them and hinders their development as a citizen who is capable of taking ethical actions for the common good. This becomes even more important while teaching the first year college students. The first year is the initial step for the college students to understand the world. This is the first time when they are away from their parents and actually live their lives on their own. They start to interact with the world without an immediate safeguard from their parents. At the same time, it is a time when they start thinking about their majors and career paths. This is the period when they beginning their journeys to find an identity of their own. With all of this happening to them at the same time, it leaves them in a very delicate and psychologically fragile state of mind. In such a case, any insensitive or inappropriate comment from an instructor about their abilities to succeed might have a huge impact on the students. This in turn can adversely impact their development as effective citizens.

While I realize that I carry a huge responsibility on my shoulders while teaching and interacting with the first year students, I believe that the responsibility which educators carry while interacting with students at any grade level is equally huge. I just hope that we, the educators, keep on doing our work with utmost honesty and student interest in mind.


  1. Hi Ashish,
    Thanks for bringing out the issue of prison experiment in the context of teaching. I kinda hesitated to reflect first because of my intense aversion from the movie/experiment, but let's see.. I will try my best to be as emotion-less as possible while writing..

    I really do think the movie did a great job in expressing how terrible the experiment was, first of all. I can really understand how and why the "subjects" experienced PTSD symptoms and some of them has never been able to recover.

    Regarding the positional power of the authorities, I do think that they do not have the "authority" now as Dr. Zimbardo had at that time. The Zeitgeist is changing in that regard. The "subjects" are called as "participants" now, they can opt-out any time, ask the professors for further clarification and ask for "more" from the higher authority figures, go to objective, wise-of-rights-people like Ombudspeople, or the Ethics board.. Dr. Zimbardo could not even start this project today.

    As Negri and Hardt mention in the Empire, the concept of absolute power of the authority figures is evaporated, and more than that, even the mole of Marx is already dead. We can not talk about the positional power of the authority figures as we are used to now. Not even because they are like the moles living under the soil, but because by the means of using right tools at the right time, anybody can be an authority figure now. That is one of the reasons may be how the issue of how the issue of education quality gained so much popularity in recent years. Now, the educators are being questioned for what they do and how they do. Education became a reciprocal concept rather than a test of students compliance to authorities (in the form of person, knowledge etc)..

    However, besides the issue of the power of the authorities, what still keeps my attention is that, the students (want to) trust the educators that they will get something from them, because they "give" time (and money and etc) for that give-take relationship. As you've mentioned in your post, by the means of just being there, the students "give" the responsibility to the educators regarding their actions. I believe, not necessarily the issue of authority, but the issue of responsibility of the teachers is a very essential discussion topic in contemporary context.

    Anyways, this comment went way too long.. Thank you if you're still reading :)

    Best, yesim

    1. Yesim, I agree that the amount of coercive power which teachers have in classrooms is going down, but I still think they have a lot of power to psychologically impact students through their comments or attitude toward them. I understand you have called that as the responsibility but I still think that gives some power to the students.

  2. You seem to have a sound teach logic. I remember my first year as a starting engineering student. While I wasn't new to the College lifestyle, I was certainly stunned by the way the engineering courses required me to think. It was alien to me, and nothing like any other experience in architecture and unrelated courses I had taken before. But when I compare my thought process now to what it was then, I've changed by leaps and bounds. It must be interesting from your perspective when you work first hand with these new students and be personally able to see how they think and possibly compare it to your current method of thinking and determine the most important lessons to prepare them in the same way that you received preparation over the past past 5+ years yourself.

  3. First of all I love the comparison of teaching and the Stanford prison study. I find the prison study story sad, but extremely fascinating. I've never seen the movie that you are talking about but Philip Zimbardo does have a couple TED Talks that are great. He talks in these about how good people in bad situations act poorly, the whole "it's a bad barrel, not a bad apple" idea. Here's a link:

    Anyway, with teaching I hear ya loud and clear about the influence teachers have on young minds. I've often thought about the good professors I had in undergrad and the two I enjoyed the most were both environmental engineers, which just so happens to be the path I took in grad school. I don't think that is a coincidence and I feel like its a good reminder of the impact our teaching has on students.

  4. Very good points Ashish, I do believe that we have enormous responsibilities; we help shape the minds of the future leaders of the country/world. This line you wrote I find very important: “hinders their development as a citizen who is capable of taking ethical actions for the common good.” We are not just educating engineers, but hopefully, good citizens.

  5. What an interesting read. The Stanford Prison Experiment first came to my attention when I was working with at-risk youth in a Wilderness Therapy program in Utah a couple years ago. As you can imagine, this is often a very emotional environment as the students are brought out to the wilderness to escape distractions and work through their self-destructive tendencies. During our training period, we were strongly encouraged to acknowledge the inherent power dynamic between counselor and student. We are so often encouraged to promote false-modesty, but it's far more important that we are realistic about our effect on others. By treating our students with respect, we invite an honest and open dialog to exist between student and authority. By avoiding condescending tones, arbitrary rules and policing "tone" of voice, you encourage mutual respect as an educator.

    1. I personally think that being honest with students is very important. By being honest to them, we validate their capacity to understand a situation. This in turn builds their confidence as they see themselves as someone who can critically think and analyze a situation and take rational decision. Also, being honest with students increases the level of respect which the students have for the instructor.