Power Corrupts

The last post, “The mice warned us,” dealt with the self-destructive nature of overcrowding. Calhoun’s mice experiments showed that unity broke down into have and have not classes, that violence erupted in self-destructive ways, and social mores disappeared. Eventually the physiology of procreation completely failed. Violence was common; illness and flagrant disregard for the wellbeing of other mice became universal. Across several experiments, the population fell to an average of 116 mice before beginning to grow again.

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Just to get the reference out of the way, it was John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton who, in 1887, said “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

This post deals with an imbalance in power. “The Stanford Prison Experiment” (SPE) was a 1971 social psychology experiment that attempted to investigate the psychological effects of perceived power, focusing on the struggle between prisoners and prison officers. It was conducted at Stanford University between August 14–20, 1971, by a research group led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo using college students. In the study, volunteers were randomly assigned to be either “guards” or “prisoners” in a mock prison, with Zimbardo himself serving as the superintendent. Several “prisoners” left mid-experiment, and the whole experiment was abandoned after six days. Early reports on experimental results claimed that students quickly embraced their assigned roles, with some guards enforcing authoritarian measures and ultimately subjecting some prisoners to psychological torture, while many prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse and, by the officers’ request, actively harassed other prisoners who tried to stop it.” [Wikipedia][1]

This experiment has been challenged because of questionable methodologies and unwarranted suggestions to participants by Zimbardo. In fact, other similar experiments with more disciplined methodologies suggest that the breakdown of social roleplay was caused by the manner in which Zimbardo exercised dictatorial control over participants, whether guards or prisoners. It was Zimbardo himself who proved Lord Acton’s quote.

In a similar experiment in England, it was found that tyranny (cruel, unreasonable, or arbitrary use of power or control) can only arise when groups become dissatisfied with their circumstances. Organized social structure that is fair and reinforcing will not let tyranny take form. In other words, fragmentation of society (we call it identity politics) will permit extreme reactions to occur in an effort to rebalance group ethos. Mariner found the English study highly relevant to the history of democracy in the US and those troublesome times when privileged groups took advantage (as in Calhoun’s mice studies) or when there was dissatisfaction on a broad scale (one example is the Vietnam War along with inflation). The conservative voters Reagan met that year became the core of his support in the decades ahead. They embraced Reagan not just for his moving pro-America rhetoric, but also for his anti-tax, small government policies and his strong stance against communism and the Soviet Union. Today, the issue again is economic imbalance as old style capitalism begins to fail in an international economy.

Forty years later, the US President seeks to restore Reagan’s policies by tyrannical behavior and disregard for a fair and reinforcing society.

Ancient Mariner

[1] For the 2015 film, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Stanford_Prison_Experiment_(film)

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