Last week, the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment was replicated at the University of Iceland.
The Stanford Experiment, conducted in 1971 by social psychologist Dr. Philip Zimbardo, involved the creation of a mock prison in the basement of Stanford University. Participants were divided into prisoners and guards and were tasked with adopting the persona assigned to them. What quickly ensued was the horrible maltreatment of prisoners by guards, so much so that the experiment had to be called off prematurely.
So Icelandic researchers were surprised when instead of humiliating and abusing prisoners, the first thing guards did was cook prisoners a hearty meal of Svid, Hrútspungar, and Plokkfiskur.
“In Iceland, we treat our prisoners with dignity and respect,” said 21-year-old Baltasar Gunnarsson, an undergraduate student assigned to be a guard. “I’ve seen enough Icelandic ‘cops and robbers’ movies to know that once a dangerous criminal is incarcerated, it is the staff’s responsibility to make sure they have as enjoyable a stay as possible.”
While in the original Stanford Prison experiment prisoners were not allowed to leave the prison, the Icelandic guards were more than willing to let prisoners get fresh air for extended periods of time.
“This is supposed to be a mock prison, not some kind of mock institution meant to confine people,” said Jón Sveinsson, another guard. “If prisoners want to go outside and kick a ball around, or go to the drug store, or even hop on a plane to somewhere warmer for a few days, who are we to stop them? We’re trying to be as realistic about this as possible.”
Of course, most prisoners enjoyed being in prison so much they never wanted to leave.
“It’s pretty great in here,” said Bjarni Magnússon, who was assigned to be a prisoner. “The cooking is phenomenal and they’ve got all the sports channels. Most days we all just hang out and play drinking games, except for Wednesday of course. Wednesday we do the talent show.”
After two weeks, the experiment was over. Researchers concluded that assigning social roles to guards and prisoners was not inherently linked to abuses of power as Zimbardo had concluded from the original experiment. But like the initial Stanford Prison experiment, some have cautioned the public from taking the results too seriously given the supposedly flawed methodology.
“The experiment was supposed to emulate a real prison environment,” said Dr. Georg Gnarr, a forensic psychologist at Iceland University who is an active critic of the social sciences.“So where were the daily shiatsu massages? Where were the little chocolates cleaning staff always put on the pillows? I’ve worked in prisons all my life and that was no prison.”
NOTES: Icelandic prisons are known for being extremely rehabilitative/non-punitive. The Stanford Prison Experiment, on the other hand, was meant to demonstrate how authority, even when arbitrary, led to tyrannical abuse.