The Power of the Context

Achintha Isuru
4 min readNov 12, 2020

Currently, Nigeria is being rocked by days of nationwide protests against police brutality following numerous allegations of harassment and extortion by a controversial police unit known as the Special Anti — Robbery Squad (SARS) [1]. The interesting thing about the SARS police unit is that the government has permitted them to do whatever they want to stop crime in Nigeria [2]. A similar kind of incident happened in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2003, where American soldiers tortured and abused Iraqi prisoners in brutal ways. “We hurt people, and not just physically, we destroyed them emotionally, and… I think at the very least it’s a just punishment for us that we suffer some of those consequences, too” [3]. These were the words of an American soldier who was in the Abu Ghraib prison at that time which implies the horrid nature of that incident. If we observe these two incidents, we can see that there are a few similar factors in these two incidents. On both occasions, the context seems to be rewarding and encouraging for foul behaviour. Is this the reason for the above incidents? Let’s talk about it today.

To talk about that, let’s look into one of the most controversial experiments ever conducted in the history of psychology, ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’. If you are a psychologist or someone interested in that area then you would know this experiment, but for other readers let me give a brief description of it first. The Stanford prison experiment was done by a famous psychologist named Professor Philip Zimbardo in 1971. In that experiment, he took a volunteered group of young men and divided them into two sets of groups called ‘guards’ and ‘prisoners’ randomly, which means there were no significant physical or psychological differences between the two sets of groups.

To make this experiment more realistic, Professor Zimbardo even arranged mock arrests of people who were in the ‘prisoner’ group. After that, the guards were given symbols of power and anonymity, guards’ costumes, handcuffs, big billy clubs (batons), and sunglasses. The prisoners were stripped out of their clothes and were given prison uniforms. They were numbered and the guards were instructed to address them using these numbers. Also, the guards put a chain on each prisoner’s leg to remind them of their lost freedom. Professor Zimbardo then put them into a prison structure which was built for the experiment in the basement of the Stanford University (later this was known as the Stanford prison) in which he acted as the superintendent and little instructions were given to the volunteers. In the beginning, the volunteers were acting awkwardly, guards found it funny to address the prisoners by their numbers, they joked about each other’s roles. But over time guards started excreting their power on prisoners and they got tough. They bullied prisoners, made them do push-ups, and if the prisoners misbehaved they would remove their bedsheets and put them in a confined space (a dark small room), and things started to escalate from there onwards. Another important thing to remember is that for this escalation to happen it only took 2 days. The guards became so violent up to the point where some prisoners got nervous breakdowns, and later most of the prisoners were diagnosed with severe psychological disorders. Around the 5th day of the experiment, Professor Zimbardo wanted to show this experiment to his then-girlfriend (later became his wife), who had recently graduated in psychology at that time [4]. She saw the inhuman nature of the experiment saying that ‘It’s terrible what you are doing to these boys’ and forced him to terminate the experiment [5].

In the above experiment, Professor Zimbardo created a context such that it encouraged the evil behaviour of the prison guards towards the prisoners, who did them nothing wrong. Professor Zimbardo referred to this phenomenon as the ‘Lucifer Effect’ [5] which describes how good people do evil things. Now if we map this experiment to the above incidents, we can see how the context in which those incidents happened encourage and reward that sort of aggressive and nasty behaviour, and how that would make those police officers and soldiers do what they did. The scary thing about those incidents and the experiment is that anyone of us, including you and me, are susceptible to these kinds of behaviours in those contexts, which emphasizes the power of the context in shaping human nature. Finally, what I want to emphasize is that it is naïve and simple-minded, just to blame a person for an evil act and we should look at the context in which he did the act and if that context encourages those kind of behaviour then those who created those context should also be punished.