Zimbardo, Milgram, and Asch: What they mean to Criminal Justice

First, I want to touch on the Asch conformity study and what it means to criminal justice. Asch conducted a study with six people at a table. Only one of them was a true test subject and the other five were actors taking part in the study. They were shown a series of posters with a line on the left and three numbered lines on the right. The goal was to say the number  of the line that matched the length of the line on the left. For the first two, everyone said the right answer. However, after that, the actors would say the wrong answer. The test subject, even though knowing what the right answer was, would also say the wrong answer so to not “make waves”. This can show why it is important to separate people when responding to a scene. It is easy to get tainted eye witness testimonies and that is one of the leading causes of innocent people being found guilty and going to prison (The Innocence Project). Here is a video on the Asch conformity study:

Next is Milgram. He conducted a study in which there was truly only one test subject and the other two people were actors, unknown to the test subject. One actor would act as a student, the test subject would act as a teacher, and the other actor would act as a professor conducting the experiment. The student would be strapped into a chair hooked to a system that delivers electric shocks in increasing increments. The teacher (the test subject) would ask question and everytime the student got a wrong answer, an electric shock would be administered, going from lightest shock to a fatal amount of 450 volts. Milgram found that 65% would continue the experiment, even though they knew they were possibly going to kill the student. The reason was because the professor was urging them on. The experiment shows that when instructions come from an authority figure, people may be more willing to commit acts of violence that they wouldn’t normally do on their own. Parallels have been drawn to the Nazis on trial saying that they were just doing what they were told and Nuremberg telling them that wasn’t good enough, that they should have known to stop. This is extremely important in today’s world. It is important to understand this dynamic in law enforcement and in the prison environment and people must anticipate it and make measures to constantly battle this tendency. Here is a video on an updated version of Milgram’s experiment:

This video is in three parts:

Finally, we come to perhaps the most controversial experiment to date: The Stanford Prison Experiment by Philip G. Zimbardo. In this experiment he created a prison setting in the basement at Stanford University. He had a number of volunteers, some acting as prisoners, and the rest as prison guards with himself like a warden. He would uncover some disturbing behavior out of normal people when placed in such a setting. Guard abuse became apparent in a short amount of time. Zimbardo was excitedly telling another professor about the experiment when she called out the ethics violations in letting the experiment continue and Zimbardo pulled the plug, ending it early. In today’s world, this treatment has been linked to places such as Abu Ghraib where authority and abuse can become infectious and those in charge do nothing to stop it. Below is a video about the experiment:

All of these experiments and studies are very important in the criminal justice field. There needs to be checks and balances to stop things such as wrong eye witness identification, abuse and torture, as well as authorities getting a bloated sense of the situation and acting in ways they normally would not when outside the situation. People place a lot of trust in the criminal justice field and when it fails, that trust is lost and likely isn’t gained back by those that were wronged. There is not much in the way of accountability as when there is abuse, the chances are paid desk duty during investigation by an inside department and a very light discipline, if any at all. This stops the justice process and undermines what the field is supposed to be doing – seeking justice.

Have you found yourself in similar situations? Have you conformed when you knew it was wrong? I’m sure the vast majority of people have, especially if coming up in public schools where conformity is preferred to individuality. How about the issues of abuse? Ever pick on someone in school because everyone else was? It’s likely a lot of people have, even if they don’t realize it. What have you learned from these experiences so that you can avoid repeating those actions again? Take some time and think about it…

* Cover photo from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bob-cesca/waterboarding-vs-hammers-_b_76419.html


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