Freemasonry has been described as a “system of morality, veiled in allegory, and illustrated by symbols.” Is morality an important aspect of a properly functioning society? The social science of Psychology has delved into this issue extensively, including the research conducted in the Stanford Prison Experiment. The experiment was intended to study the psychological effects of a simulated prison environment on individuals, which devolved to a point where participants were subjected to cruel and dehumanizing abuse. The primary conclusion of the experiment was that in such a high stress scenario the resulting behavior of the participants supported a situationist rather than a dispositionalist explanation of conformity. Does an internal moral compass, such as one is taught to develop in Freemasonry, allow individuals to avoid conforming to negative situational pressures placed upon them?
The Stanford Prison Experiment
The Stanford prison experiment conducted a study of the psychological effects of arbitrarily becoming a prisoner or prison guard. The experiment was conducted in 1971 at Stanford University from August 14th to 20th.The study began with an ad in the classifieds: “Male college students needed for psychological study of prison life. $15 per day for 1-2 weeks beginning Aug. 14.” More than seventy men volunteered to take part in the study which was conducted in a fake prison housed inside Jordan Hall on Stanford’s Main Quadrangle. Leading the study was 38-year-old psychology professor Philip Zimbardo who, along with his research team, selected 24 male applicants and randomly assigned 12 to be prisoners and 12 to be guards.
With funding and support from the U.S. Office of Naval Research, Professor Zimbardo created a scenario to investigate the psychological impacts of a simulated prison environment on all participants including those playing prisoners as well as guards. Specifically, he sought to determine whether participants in the study would adapt to situational attribution or dispositional attribution behaviors under certain variables. Having been approved by Stanford’s Human Subjects Research Committee, Zimbardo abruptly ended the study after only six days, stating that “neither they nor we could have imagined” that the guards would treat the prisoners so inhumanely.
Inside the Prison
The prison-like environment was set up in the basement of the University’s Psychology Building: Jordan Hall. The 24 participants were selected based on a lack of criminal background, psychological issues, and medical conditions. The prisoners were arrested at their homes by actual police officers, booked in a police station, and brought to the simulated prison where they were placed into six by nine-foot prison cells with three prisoners in each cell.
Professor Zimbardo encouraged the guards to think of themselves as actual guards in a real prison. He clearly and repeatedly instructed the guards that the prisoners could not be physically harmed. Instead, Zimbardo told the guards to create an atmosphere in which the prisoners felt “powerless.” Guards and the warden utilized rooms across from the cells. A closet was used for solitary confinement, and another room served as the prison yard. Prisoners had to remain in the mock prison night and day for the duration of the experiment while guards were allowed to leave after each eight hour shift. Researchers used hidden cameras and microphones to observe the behavior of the participants.
The guards became abusive as early as the second day of the experiment, and some prisoners began showing signs of extreme stress and anxiety. The guards began to act in ways that were aggressive and even dehumanizing toward the prisoners while the prisoners became passive and depressed and some were even despondent, began crying, and showed other signs of severe negative emotions. The researchers, themselves, became so engrossed in the situation that they began to lose sight of the reality of what was happening.
For six days, half the study’s participants, the 12 “prisoners,” endured cruel and dehumanizing abuse at the hands of their peers. At various times, they were verbally taunted, stripped naked, deprived of sleep, and forced to use plastic buckets within the cells for a toilet. The prisoners reacted in a variety of ways: some refused to comply; some rebelled violently; some became hysterical or withdrew into despair.
As the situation descended into chaos, the team of researchers merely stood by and watched. Zimbardo had planned for the experiment to last for 14 days but ended the experiment after just six days on account of a female Ph.D. student raising questions about the morality of what was happening in the mock prison environment.
Ending the Experiment
Professor Zimbardo arranged for all members of the experiment, the prisoners, guards, and staff, to be interviewed by uninvolved faculty members and graduate students. Ph.D. Candidate Christina Maslach observed the guards line up the prisoners at the 10 p.m. appointed bathroom break. When the prisoners came out of their cells, the guards put bags over their heads, chained their feet together, and forced them to move in unison like a chain gang. The guards then began cursing and yelling at the prisoners. Visibly shaken, Christina responded, “I can’t look at this,” and left the basement.
When Zimbardo followed Maslach outside of the building, she questioned the morality of what his experiment was doing to the students. She said, “It’s terrible what you’re doing to these boys. How can you see what I saw and not care about the suffering?” At this point, Professor Zimbardo realized that his view of reality had been altered by the experiment, and he immediately terminated the study.
Freemasonry’s Morality Instruction
Freemasonry teaches the importance of morality and provides instruction to members as to how to treat others as themselves. Masonry upholds the virtues of charity, temperance, fortitude, and justice: all which were absent from the Stanford Prison Experiment.
A strong moral compass is necessary when an individual faces peer pressure or authoritative demands to act in an inhumane fashion towards his fellow man. By subduing the animalistic tendencies of violence and hatred, individuals can be elevated above responding to situational pressures. Adherence to an internal moral code is necessary to inherently know what is right and what is wrong, regardless of the situation.