Experience: human nature

Experience: human nature

The Experienceis a 2001 German film directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel; it is based on the workThe black box which, in turn, was inspired by the actual experience at Standford in 1971.This experience has been challenged countless times and, even though the film is far enough away from what actually happened, it makes us wonder how human nature really is: are we good or bad? ? Are there good and bad people? It is certainly a film where philosophy, ethics, morals, sociology and psychology mingle.

The Experiencebegins with Tarek Fahd, a taxi driver with economic problems who decides to make extra money by participating in an experiment. In addition to the money that will bring him this experience, he decides to collaborate with a newspaper for which he worked in the past and to film everything that happens during the experiment.Money will be what will push participants to collaborate as guinea pigs to an experience that will ultimately destroy their lives.

Participants have very different lives: a taxi driver, an airline employee, a senior executive, an Elvis impersonator, and so on. All are looking for a new experience and, mainly, an economic compensation.These participants will undergo various psychological tests and interviews. After that, a role will be assigned to them: that of prisoner or that of guardian.We see that some participants display insecurities, while others have great self-confidence … All of this will help the experienced doctors to assign them a role.

None of the participants were in prison during his life. None seems to come out of "normality"; they all have a profession, a family … In the end, a perfectly common life. When they get to know each other in the waiting room, before knowing what role they have been assigned, they all seem to have a pleasant conversation and are happy to know each other. However,what at first seemed a simple game will eventually turn into a nightmare that will make us wonder about human nature.

"Man should not intervene in nature but he always does."


The experience of Stanford prison

The experience on which the film is based was conducted at Stanford University (United States) in 1971by Professor Zimbardo; 24 psychologically stable students participated. However, the experiment took little time to become uncontrollable because the people involved were completely immersed in the roles assigned to them.

Many participants suffered serious psychological damage. Those who had taken the role of prisoners then showed great resignation and submission, while the guards began to abuse their power and to apply truly cruel punishments.The film partially shows this experience but presents some differences:

  • The roles assigned in the original experiment were randomwhile, in the film, they are assigned after having subjected a series of tests to the participants.
  • During the Stanford experiment, the prisoners were arrested as if they had committed a real offense.This does not happen in the film: they are simply assigned their role after accepting their participation.
  • In the film, the only security we see is that of the surveillance cameras and the three doctors who supervise the experiment without intervening.At Stanford, Zimbardo himself participated as superintendent and two actual police officers supervised the experiment.

The Experienceand social roles

The Experiencetransports us to a fictional prison, the places are really cold,there is almost no warm color in the whole movie and even before the beginning of the experience. The 20 participants will have to spend 14 days in a fictitious prison, the guards do not receive any order, except for a small regulation of the prison, and will be able to act as they wish when a prisoner does not obey them, even if they are warned that they must not resort to violence.

Prisoners, on the contrary, are totally stripped of their identity; they go from a name to a simple number, will have to get rid of their underwear and wear only a very fine uniform that contrasts with that of the guards. In the beginning,many take it lightly, think it is only a game and they can return home after a few days to resume their normal lives (with some extra tickets).

"The experience is not painful, they will not have medicine to take.This is a role play in a prison. "


However,from the moment we assign them roles, we see that some participants take the experience very seriously,becoming more submissive if they are prisoners or more aggressive and authoritarian if they are guardians. The film acquires an increasingly dramatic and claustrophobic tone, showing sadism, guards' abuse of power and the suffering of prisoners.

Some prisoners have a harder time keeping their role; however, the guards seem to feel quite comfortable with theirs. The majority of jailers are fathers of families, have a good job … but in the face of a situation of power,they act in a way they would never have imagined, by arriving at the most extreme violence and subjecting the prisoners to atrocious practices.

"You've seen, they're doing everything we tell them to do."


The more days pass and the more complicated the situation; there are more and more abuses and the suffering of prisoners is increasing.In a way, Tarek creates a few situations by trying to capture a good story for his diary, even though we see that delusions and ideas of possible conspiracy will seize all participants, causing them to act unexpectedly.

One of the characters that catches our attention the most is Berus,a man who works for an airline, something that makes us think he's psychologically stable. However, it will be the cruelest of the guards;he will take the role of leader of the guardians, a leadership that others will accept without complaining.

The Experiencepresents us with a society deprived of freedom where people are reduced to numbers, making them lose their identity;they are assigned a role and people will act according to the latter, even knowing that nothing is real. The participants end up immersing themselves in this role.

Even if millions of possible answers come to our minds and even if we know each other perfectly,we can not predict how we will react to a situation that is totally uncontrollable or out of everyday life.It seems that we tend to separate people into two categories: the good and the bad. On the other hand, we probably do not consider ourselves as bad people. But do we really know our nature?

The film and the experience push us to wonder if we are really free, if we have this free will which we are often told about in philosophy, if we know the human nature …Do we act with total freedom? We may simply be victims of a role we have been assigned and we act accordingly.The Experienceinvites us to ask ourselves an infinity of questions about our own nature and our freedom.

"I have a free will but not because I chose it I have never freely chosen to have a free will, therefore I have a free will, whether I like it or not ".

-Raymond Smullyan-

Reasons for Evil: The Stanford Prison Experience

"The Lucifer Effect: The Reasons for Evil" is the title of the book where Philip Zimbardo presents the experience he has put in place in … Read More "
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