Chauncey DeVega in AlterNet:
In 1971 Philip Zimbardo conducted one of the most widely known social psychology experiments of all time. A professor at Stanford University, Zimbardo recruited 18 college-aged male students to play the role of guards and inmates in a makeshift prison he would construct in the basement of the psychology department. After just one day of the experiment, these students quickly internalized the roles of the powerful and the powerless. “Guards” became increasingly abusive and cruel toward “prisoners.” The prisoners responded first by resisting and then by succumbing to despair and a sense of learned helplessness. Although the experiment was originally planned for two weeks, Zimbardo stopped his experiment after six days. The lesson had been learned: When the correct group dynamics are present — and a set of rules legitimate the behavior — otherwise “normal” and “good” individuals will abuse and bully other human beings. In the almost five decades since Zimbardo conducted what is now known as the Stanford Prison Experiment, there has been an increase in the coarseness and meanness of America’s popular culture. What has been described as a “culture of cruelty” is the new normal and surveillance is omnipresent. Political polarization and dysfunction have broken the standing norms and rules of good governance in Washington, trust in political and social institutions such as the news media has declined, authoritarianism has increased among conservatives, the social safety net has been torn apart and the nation’s police continue to abuse and kill black and brown Americans with near impunity. This is “social dominance behavior” filtered through racism and the neoliberal economic order. The sum total of these (and other) factors has resulted in the election of the neofascist Donald Trump as president of the United States. In many ways, Trump’s election was a decision by millions of American voters to punish their fellow citizens. These people were encouraged and enabled in this desire to do harm by their leaders in the right-wing media and by Trump himself.
How can social psychology help us understand this moment? What lessons does the Stanford Prison Experiment hold for American society in 2017? Are Donald Trump’s supporters swept up in a wave of authoritarianism and bullying? Can they be stopped? Why are conservatives so hostile to people they perceive as “the other”? What can we do to resist Donald Trump and fight back against the feelings of hopelessness and trauma that many Americans have experienced since his election in November? In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Zimbardo, now a professor emeritus at Stanford and also president of the Heroic Imagination Project. He has written dozens of articles and books, most recently “The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life” and “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.”