Psychology and Prison Experiments

Published 20 Oct 2017

Among the number of “reinforcements” identifiable in the Stanford Prison experiment, the Milgram experiment, and the Abu Ghraib prison events are the presence of an increasing scheme of punishments or corresponding aspects thereof coupled by an increasing volume in terms of repetition. Since “reinforcements” are forms of consequences which result to behaviors with a higher frequency to occur, it can be noted that the two experiments along with the Abu Ghraib incident indicate the use of “negative reinforcement”.

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An example of a negative reinforcement notable in the three events is the application of brute or physical force in altering the behaviors of the prisoners. Further, the negative reinforcement has been applied with an increasing degree of occurrence which theoretically and practically increases the modification in the voluntary behaviors of the prisoners.

Perhaps one of the indicators that ‘social learning’ is evident in the overseas prison is the very behaviors of the prison guards where they acted more likely out of what they have learned from previous dealings both inside and outside the prison before and during their active role in the prison. Moreover, the prisoners may have likewise acted in the manner they were observed from the prison partly out of what they have perhaps watched or observed in prisons especially the manner in which prisoners behave prior to their actual imprisonment.

Although there may be no strong link between what the prisoners have indirectly learned about prison life prior to their imprisonment and their resulting behavior from imprisonment, it can hardly be denied that the ‘socially learned’ behaviors of prisoners have a great role in the resulting behaviors of the prisoners especially when they are confronted either by fellow prisoners or the prison guards.

The culture of ‘guard violence’ also greatly contributed to the manner in which the status of the prisoners was dealt with by the prison guards. More importantly, it can be observed that because of the culture of ‘guard violence’ adamant in the Abu Ghraib prison the situation has been far similar to that of the Stanford Prison Experiment, if not far worse. Where the conditions for the prisoners have been beyond the normal or perhaps tolerable level of the prisoners, it is apparent that the living conditions greatly obscured the normal behaviors of the prisoners and, instead, brought about the behaviors quite similar to the experiment of Dr. Zimbardo.

Dr. Robert Jay Lifton argues that everyone has the capability of being sadistic in ways. Hence, it is not a farfetched idea to contend that the Abu Ghraib prison scandal is a result of the weakness of man to control his human nature. Since sadism is just another natural reaction of humans to their environment, it can be aptly deduced that perhaps the prison guards acted in a ‘sadistic’ way as a result of the prison environment they were into and the war scene that surrounds them.

In terms of the learning of ethical behavior in a criminal justice organization, the inherent ‘sadistic’ behavior of humans coupled with a harsh war environment can indeed result to devastating consequences. It also obscures the objectives of some, if not all, criminal justice organizations as its very agents have the probability to succumb to the effects of these behaviors. While there maybe ways to control these unwanted and oftentimes rarely foreseen behaviors, the consequences in the long run of these ‘inner’ characteristic and warfare environment may be difficult to control and ascertain the breadth of its effects.


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