The Stanford prison experiment revisited

INN331 – Management Issues for Information Professionals

WEEK THREE: Lecture tangent on manipulating staff.

This comment relates to a university lecture and may not make any sense to anyone who did not attend that lecture.


About 20 years ago I participated in a corporate change management and team building ‘retreat’ during which we played a limited version of the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment.

Our game was devoid of props like prison cells or handcuffs, and we were divided into ‘patricians’ and plebeians’, with the patricians being encouraged to abuse and bully the plebeians into accomplishing menial tasks in their service.

The idea seemed to be to point out the needless, impersonal, callous, and demeaning flavour of some command and control management environments.

When we began, we knew none of this, and were assigned our status. I was a plebeian. For about half a day I received considerable critique from colleagues for refusing to play along, and sometimes responding to the encouraged insults and taunts with an extended middle digit.

I observed as some of the management team began to relish their superiority just a little bit too much, and one or two of the plebeians ended up leaving the conference theatre where this all played out.

There came a moment when one of my colleagues decided to dress me down for not participating, meaning not following patrician orders. His language became coarse and his voice was raised. Then he began to poke his index finger in my chest. I told him not to do that, but he did it again. I threw a pretty serious punch and knocked him to the ground.

That was the end of the game, with a somewhat red-faced facilitator admitting the game had never gone quite so far in other iterations he’d staged, and that he should have stepped in to end it earlier.

For my part I regret nothing about my actions, and I never did accept an apology from my antagonist, with whom I nevertheless worked for a couple of more years.

My attitude of non-compliance in this game came from my understanding of Hannah Arendt’s 1963 coverage of the Adolf Eichmann show-trial in Israel, which ended with his hanging for Nazi war crimes.

Arendt, herself Jewish, had escaped the Shoah, but unlike many of her peers took a quite unusual position on Nazi war criminals, which was that they were not monsters, just unthinking automatons who had no conception of their culpability and crimes.

Arendt was vilified for not subscribing to orthodox views that all Nazis were monsters to be excoriated. She drew particular criticism for suggesting that the scale of the Shoah was exacerbated by the complicity of civilian Jewish leaders cooperating with the Nazis rather than resisting them.

Having read the Nuremberg war crimes trials transcripts when still in high school, those details, matched in my mind much later to Arendt’s philosophical positions on the nature of evil and culpability, made me conclude that blithe and uncritical acceptance of orders or instructions from authority figures is always dangerous and often morally indefensible.

This is how I arrived at a situation in which I resisted bullying intimidation with violence. To this day I wonder whether the tension could have been resolved in some other way, but to this day I think my reaction was the only one that could have prevented me from losing my self-respect, plus respect and status in the organisation. It was literally a lose-lose situation based on hierarchy and the abuse of authority.

I wonder, now, though, whether it’s not the facilitator I should have decked.

In terms of organisational culture, I suppose my insight is that no rational, self-respecting, switched-on person will stick around to be abused or manipulated. Behaviour and organisational culture only marginally as bad as the prison experiment will make the best and brightest leave for better positions.

Worse, it leaves behind the least capable staff, some of whom become mentally distressed and scarred by the experience, transforming in their own minds into helpless victims of circumstances they cannot control or exit. I have sometimes gained the impression that some public service organisations I have knowledge of come close to such environments, particularly through the deliberate use-as-weapon of political correctness.

The above narrative is the response I could not give to Elham in class because I did not want to truncate my answer, turning it into a reductionist and meaningless throw-away. But neither did I want to divert the entire class this far away from the lecture sequence.

The subject has relevance to other areas of management, including the Sukovic paper suggested as reading for week two (I commented on it here), in which I thought a dishonest strategic planning exercise was engaged in to give staff a false belief they had input into decisions that had already been made.

The issue also has implications for my assignment ‘conversation’ in which the same issue was raised about the disastrous consequences of telling professionals they have choices about strategic directions when in fact they did not.

Another issue arising from the entire topic is the irrationality of assuming that everyone is comfortable with playing essentially extrovert games, with adopting faux positivity just to prove to idiots that impassive moods are not negative, and that teamwork must involve infantilism or compliance with requests to behave in ways quite alien to some personality types. Nothing like the brutality of the Stanford prison experiment would be tolerated in too many organisations today, but I think some of the demands for participating in silly, low-brow activities in the name of team-building come pretty close to pushing some people into pretty uncomfortable places, and university classes aren’t immune from stooping to such approaches.


YouTube BBC documentary on the Stanford prison experiment (about 30 minutes).

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