The Source of Corruption: Human Nature or Social Structures?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science

By Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

After the WWII and the trial of Alfred Eichmann, psychologists studied the influence of authority on human behaviors. They found that people can perform violent and brutal acts and shift the blame to authorities by saying they were doing their jobs. In 1973, Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist from Stanford University, expressed an even more disquieting proposition. He contended that even unreal and imaginary authority could have the same effect as the real one.

A man dressed in a suit is facing a glassy silhouette of a brain which he has his hands around.
Philip Zimbardo’s experiment revealed that even unreal authority could have adverse effects on human behaviors. (Image: Jirsak/Shutterstock)

Philip Zimbardo’s Experiment

Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment on a group of Stanford University graduates. Some of them were randomly chosen to be prisoners, and others were assigned as guards. The setting of the study was a fake prison that he had built in the basement of a building.

The subjects with potential sadistic dispositions were screened out. All of the subjects were well-educated, middle-class, and white, forming a homogenous population.

All the elements of the criminal justice system were fully recreated by arresting the designated prisoners, taking them to local police stations, and taking their fingerprints. After their mug shots were taken, they were escorted to the fake jail, where they had to wear badly-fitting smocks and ankle chains. Numbers were used to refer to the prisoners instead of their names.

The guards had batons, wore mirrored sunglasses, and were allowed to do whatever they wanted to vex the prisoners. The warden was Zimbardo himself, who sanctioned actions by not objecting to them.

This is a transcript from the video series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Abrupt End of Philip Zimbardo’s Experiment

Initially, the prisoners showed a lack of respect for the guard’s authority because they hadn’t taken the experiment seriously. It was met by the guard’s enforcement of their authority. When the prisoners reacted with a revolt, the guards responded by violently using fire extinguishers. To keep the prisoners submissive and maintain their authority, the guards engaged in humiliating and dehumanizing activities.

The photograph shows a human head made from pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, placed in the center if a maze.
Philip Zimbardo experimented the effect of unreal authority on human behavior. (Image: AlexLMX/Shutterstock)

Within the first six days, one prisoner had a breakdown, which led to his removal from the experiment. The subjects were neither really criminals nor real guards. They were educated people who proved that under those circumstances, they would react the same as real guards.

Even Zimbardo hadn’t noticed the inhumane conditions of the prison. Only when he described the situation to his girlfriend did he realize what was going on. She told him to stop the experiment for humanitarian reasons. Although the study was set to go on for two weeks, it was ended after six days due to the shocking and potentially harmful effects.

The results indicated that violation in prisons was not the result of sadistic people put in charge of prisoners. It was the position of authority that leads guards to mistreat prisoners.

Learn more about basic motives underlying behavior.

The Need for Social Structures

So the question was if humans are inherently good or evil. According to Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher, we have a dark and nasty self by nature that has to be controlled by a powerful central government. He referred to humanity before the establishment of social structures as the state of our nature.

This state of nature was devoid of rules, a social safety net, or even fundamental cooperation. Every action on the part of human beings revolves around their own survival. Every other human being could be a potential threat to us. So, the state of nature involved a constant war between human beings. According to Hobbes, life in the state of nature was “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.”

In order to end the state of nature, human beings created a social structure where the government took control of their natural rights in return for keeping order. We would prefer any form of oppression from the government to the state of nature because it would maintain the order vital for our survival and growth. All in all, humans are nothing but brutal animals who have to keep themselves civilized under the control of a central government.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th-century French thinker, had a different idea. Being a romantic, he thought that the state of nature was ideal because there was no political structure to take away our natural freedom.

Learn more about values and moral character.

The Effect of Social Structures

We are naturally wonderful and creative beings that can flourish without the restrictions imposed by the political structure. Our nasty and brutal characteristics are not inherent; rather, they are the reactions to the authority of the state. Civilization did not eliminate our savage nature. It created savagery in us. The civilized social structures that create boundaries and private properties turn us into selfish creatures full of greed, envy, and jealousy.

But according to the psychological studies about the reality of the human mind, including Zimbardo’s experiment, the source of corruption is not the structure of civilization per se. Instead, it is the distribution of power and authority that leads to corruption.

Common Questions about the Source of Corruption: Human Nature or Social Structures?

Q: What is Philip Zimbardo known for?

Philip Zimbardo is known for his experiments on the role of unreal authority in making humans behave cruelly. He found that authority does not have to be real to be effective.

Q: How long did the Zimbardo experiment last?

Zimbardo‘s experiment lasted for six days, although it was set to take two weeks. He had to end the experiment because of the shocking results it had.

Q: Why did Thomas Hobbes think the government is necessary?

Thomas Hobbes thought the government is necessary to curb the dark nature of human beings. Humans give their natural rights to the government to get social order in return.

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