Today I took my first ever college exam. I spent all night studying and tried to master my knowledge of everything from the Gunpowder Empires to Imperialism. One of the subjects I spent well over an hour trying to memorize were the political theories of Machiavelli and Rousseau. Machiavelli was famously known for his advocacy of the strong, self-preserving, cruel leader. Since he thought human nature was innately evil, he believed that morality and politics should be completely separate entities. A leader that had a stronghold over his government did so for the benefit of his people. Meanwhile, Rousseau believed that politics and morality must be combined in order to make a successful ruler. Rousseau believed that it was our society that corrupted us, and that humans were naturally good. Therefore, he believed a ruler must imply morality and appeal towards goodness in order to be a productive leader.
This had me thinking, whether or not the “correct” way to lead someone is by appealing to the innate human instincts of evilness or goodness, what is the “innate” way that most humans act when given a position of power? Sure, rulers can be given a set list of “Do’s and Don’t’s” on how to be a successful leader for their people, but how does the average human handle positions of leadership not only in the larger sense (i.e. kings, presidents, ect), but in daily life?
I remember last year in my high school psychology class briefly discussing the Stanford Prison Experiment. The experiment was conducted in 1973 by a group of psychologists at Stanford University. They hired a group of students from the university to participate in the study, paying them each around fifteen dollars a day. The group was randomly divided into two sections – prisoners and guards, they would “act” in these roles for two weeks in an underground faux prison built by the university. The experiment ended up having to be cut short because of the horrifying unforeseen outcomes of the trial. The students participating had seemed to have delved into their roles as prisoners or guards much too seriously. The students who acted as guards specifically began to abuse the power they had. As days went by the students posing as guards would continually pester, embarrass, and torment the other students. This even led to a “prisoner rebellion” towards the end of the experiment which led to physical violence, causing the investigation to be cut short.
The experiment’s shocking results affirmed how easily humans abused power when given a leadership role. The Stanford Prison Experiment to this day is one of the most shocking psychological tests to have ever been performed. Many of the participants in the experiment after returning home suffered psychological torment from the experience. The investigation as a whole depicted the possible frightening effects that a person in a position of power could encounter.
The results from this experiment are extremely disturbing and concerning. Yet, the students were in an uncontrolled environment that was isolated from the outside world. They were merely being witnessed by the psychologists trying to gather data. So, although the results gathered pointed towards the idea that humans are innately power hungry and will take advantage of the power they are given, does this necessarily mean that humans would act the same way in the real world?
When given the opportunity to hold a position of power, many people feel that it is a great honor and a great responsibility, at least on the outside. However, it is probable that most humans when given these leadership roles will at one point or another use them to their advantage for hidden selfish needs in the unconscious.