Our mythologies and religions tell us who we are.
They tell us psychological truths.
With that in mind, should our new mythology include stories from psychological studies? Don’t such studies ask us to consider the mysteries of the human psyche?
Consider what the story below tells us about ourselves:
In 1971, as part of a psychological experiment, researchers created a mock prison at Stanford University.
They randomly divided test subjects into two groups. One group of twelve would be guards. One group of twelve would be prisoners.
These twenty-four were selected from seventy-five applicants. They were judged to be the most psychologically stable.
But problems quickly arose. The fake prison became too much like a real prison. A real prison with real problems. The pseudo-guards begin acting in an authoritarian manner. The pseudo-prisoners responded by acting like prisoners. Except it wasn’t an act. The psychic toil was real.
A prisoner suffered a mental breakdown after only 36 hours. Another prisoner went on a hunger strike. In one of the cell blocks, the prisoners revolted.
The guards became more and more abusive. There was gamesmanship on both sides.
The mock prison, scheduled to last two weeks, was terminated after six days.
I heard of this experiment while still in high school. The implications were obvious: we can easily become consumed by the roles we’re asked to play.
Unfortunately, I’ve too often forgotten this message in my adult life. Though I’ve tried to be independent, to be self-aware…
…at times, I’ve lost myself—my better self—by becoming too involved in a particular “role”.
So what’s the use of such stories if our behavior isn’t changed for the better?
Well, maybe I needed to hear this story more than once.
When a story becomes part of a mythology, we receive its wisdom again and again, all through our lives.
It becomes a part of us. It helps wake us up—if we let it, if we work with it.
…but aren’t we better served by stories of heroism?—stories that inspire us, that show us what we can be at our best?
The story of the Stanford experiment certainly doesn’t fit that category. True, some prisoners did try to buck the system. However, as far as I know, none stepped outside of his assigned role. We have to wonder what these same prisoners might have done if given the role of guard.
No, it’s definitely not a story of heroism. It’s a story that shows us at our worst, at our weakest. Do we really need another such story?
Well, I think we can regain a sense of humility by having our weaknesses—our vulnerabilities—revealed.
To do a better job of dealing with our worst instincts, we need to see them and feel some shame in seeing them.
Maybe then we can achieve a heroism that is not the false heroism of egotism, but the honest heroism of self-sacrifice.
Considered in this light, perhaps our new mythology could use the story of the mock prison.
It’s dramatic, but not a dramatization. This scenario didn’t come from a writer. This scenario came from us—all of us. We have no choice but to accept its truth.
© 2011, Michael R. Patton