Understanding the Scientology Mindset – Part 4 Power Corrupts: The Stanford Prison Experiment

stanford prisonIn the previous post in this series (Obedience to Authority) we saw how ordinary people would abdicate their responsibilities to an authority figure, and behave in a a quite frightening way.

I suggested that this experiment helps to explain why Scientologists who are good people find themselves doing questionable things when told to so by the Church.

It does not explain why Scientologists (also good people) who are placed in positions of authority give questionable orders to other members of the Church  – and enforce them with the harsh punishments required by Scientology doctrine.

Professor Philip Zimbardo performed a classic experiment that helps to explain how this happens. He created a mock prison, in the basement of Stanford University, and recruited students to play the roles of both  guards and inmates. in the film linked to below he revisits this location, and then uses original photographs and film to help describe what happened.

Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Experiment View Online | Download as .mp4

Setting up the Stanford Prison Experiment

Male students were recruited from a newspaper for a “[…] psychological study of prison life”, which was to last for between seven and fourteen days. They were offered $15 for every day they took part. applicants were carefully screened for “psychological problems, medical disabilities, or a history of crime or drug abuse2. Zimbardo described the applicants as, “healthy, intelligent, middle-class males”.

Before the experiment began, it was made perfectly clear that anyone taking part could leave at any time, for any reason. They had nothing to lose, and a fulfilling life as a student of a prestigious university to return to.

Participants were randomly assigned the role of ‘prisoner’ or ‘guard’, and Zimbardo himself took the role of Prison Governor.

The basement of a building on the Stanford University campus was fitted out with convincing bars, and cells and locked doors. An existing intercom system allowed experimenters to ‘bug’ the cells. finally, the co-operation of the local police was obtained.


When the time came, the participants were ’rounded up’ by real police stanford arrestteams. their ‘arrest’ was not official – but they were handcuffed, searched and transported to ‘prison’ via a holding cell – exactly the same procedure followed for real arrests.

When prisoners arrived they all individually received a lecture from the Governor (Zimbardo) emphasising the seriousness of their imaginary offence, then stripped of almost all of their clothes and ‘deloused’ with a dummy spray

Their clothes were replaced by a prison uniform bearing bearing a prominent number (which is how they were referred to by the guards for the duration). Also, they,were required to wear a tight hairnet (in lieu of having their heads shaved) and a heavy chain was wrapped around one ankle and secured with a padlock.


stanford prison guardThe guards (who, remember, were selected at random) were issued with uniforms and symbolic accessories (a whistle and a club). They also wore dark glasses, to conceal their eyes from the inmates, and make interactions more impersonal.

The guards were free to make up whatever rules they thought would ensure order and a proper attitude of respect from the prisoners. The only imperative was that they should never use violence against any prisoner – a directive which was monitored and enforced by the ‘Warden’, a graduate student who reported direct to Zimbardo.

The Power of the Situation

Almost immediately, a prison rebellion broke out. The guards regained control, and instituted a repressive regime designed to maintain control over the inmates. After only 36 hours, one prisoner showed signs of acute distress, and had to be ‘released’.

More dramas followed – prison visits, false rumours of a planned mass escape (which provoked another crackdown), interviews between inmates and a real Catholic Priest (who was an experienced prison visitor) and parole hearings. The emotional impact of these events on all the participants was beyond anything you would expect from a simulation. People began to live their roles, rather than just play them.

After only five days, the attitudes of both guards and prisoner hardened, and an uncompromising, authoritarian regime became firmly established. Years later, when news emerged of the abuses performed by US troops at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad clear parallels could be drawn between the two situations.

The whole story is told in this video, by Zimbardo himself.

After only six days, both guards and prisoners were beginning to exhibit pathological behaviour. Also, the guards were escalating their abuse of prisoners during the night (when they thought the Governor was not watching). When an outsider, brought in to conduct personality tests on the participants, witnessed how far the situation had become she was outraged. Her subsequent confrontation with Zimbardo made him realise that he had slipped into the role of Governor, and allowed the experiment to go too far. After only six days of the planned fourteen, he ended the experiment on ethical grounds.


When Zimbardo transformed ordinary students into prison guards, he inserted good people into a system that required them to behave in cruel ways – for example, they had to impose ‘discipline’ (including punishments) in order to keep order.

He found that they rationalised their behaviour (see Cognitive Dissonance) for example by choosing to believe:

  • That their actions were ‘for the greater good’
  • ‘Prisoners’ couldn’t be trusted
  • A degree of harsh treatment was necessary to keep order

In this way, they could put aside their feelings and get the job done.

The vital thing that was learned from the Stanford Prison Experiment was the importance of the social situation that people operated in, and the expectations that this placed upon them. A toxic situation can strongly influence people so as they are more likely to behave badly.

‘Stanford Prison’ and the Sea Org

There are striking parallels between the situation of participants in Stanford Prison Experiment and 90px-Sea_Org_logo.svgeveryday life for many members of the Sea Org This organisation consists of people who live on Church property and work full-time for Scientology. Their elaborate naval-style uniforms are part of a strict pseudo-military discipline that controls every aspect of their lives. Members or the Sea Org are recruited at an early age, often from Scientology-run schools, which present it as a more important ‘mission’ than going on to college, or working a mundane job.

The rules and conventions which control the behaviour of members of the Sea Org create a social situation which is as least as toxic as that created within Stanford Prison. Sea Org ‘officers’ are required to issue orders, not requests. They are expected to deal with the slightest hesitation as a significant breach of discipline. Those who receive orders are required to obey without question or comment, and run (not walk) when carrying out orders.

However, unlike the Stanford students, members of the Sea Org cannot just walk out. They can be prevented from doing so by a number of means, including social pressure and actual physical restraint. Also, they may have been isolated from the wider world for many years – they may have nowhere to go and lack the skills, qualifications, knowledge and confidence they need to make a new life.

The Stanford experiment was ended after six days, to protect the participants. The Sea Org experiment has been running for decades without ethical constraint. Many accounts of abuse have surfaced – including coerced abortions to enforce the current rule that prohibits members of the Sea Org from having children.

The oppression suffered by members of the Sea Org member is a consequence of the rules and regulations of the organisation, and the way in which ‘officers’ of the organisation feel they have to behave in order to keep good order and get the job done. As in the ‘Stanford Prison’, ordinary, good people placed in a toxic social situation gradually come to justify cruelty and abuse.

‘Stanford Prison’ and Scientology

The toxic social situation that exist in the Sea Org (and in Scientology generally) is due to Scientologists trying to apply unrealistic rules, regulations, and procedures based upon the doctrines of Scientology. It follows that the practice Scientology itself creates social situations that encourage cruelty and abuse .

It’s almost as if the organisation is a malignant living thing, each cell an individual person who is ‘just following orders’. If it is, it took on a life of its own after the death of the L Ron Hubbard – the man who established it, and provided the template for its personality.


Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Experiment View Online | Download as .mp4

Further Reading

Link to full Review of the Lucifer Effect

lucifer effect




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