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The TSA and the Stanford Prison Experiment

Watching this video (and the associated description) of psychological abuse of a passenger by TSA officials in a US airport reminds me of watching video from the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment.

In that experiment, conducted in 1971 in the basement of the Stanford Psychology building, normal, healthy students were randomly assigned to the roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison. Over the course of six days, the “guards” developed extremely authoritarian, abuse behavior towards the “prisoners”, and subjected some of the “prisoners” to torture. Philip Zimbardo, the head of the study, reflected later on the results:

The situation won; humanity lost. Out the window went the moral upbringings of these young men, as well as their middle-class civility. Power ruled, and unrestrained power became an aphrodisiac. Power without surveillance by higher authorities was a poisoned chalice that transformed character in unpredictable directions. I believe that most of us tend to be fascinated with evil not because of its consequences but because evil is a demonstration of power and domination over others.

It seems to me that the actions of the TSA could be described in the same way. Without oversight, power has taken the place of rationality and domination seems to be the goal.

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