Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Best Jobs For Abusers - Is the Stanford Prison Experiment Relevant?

While reading the emails sent to Rep. Sharon Cissna (I've posted some excerpts here)   I read a number of reports from people - both men and women - about the invasiveness of the 'pat-downs' they've endured.  Many of these people are older women who have had mastectomies, but also men and women who are amputees and/or have metal replacements for hips and other parts of their bodies.  They are people like my nearly 90 year old mother who are not likely to be terrorists suspects, but because of surgical procedures and TSA's screening protocol, are now likely to have their groins and chests touched by TSA agents.  (My mom, like many of the email writers, won't fly because of this.)

There were lots of lists of "best jobs for _____."  Here are some examples:

Link to See Complete Cartoon
Why not a list of best jobs for abusers?  People who want to use their power over others - to humiliate them, whether sexually or otherwise, or even just to take advantage of their vulnerability.

I'm not sure whether the priesthood in the Catholic church is a good job option for abusers any longer, plus it takes a lot of preparation to get those jobs.

Prison guards and nursing home jobs also give opportunities for abusers to take advantage of vulnerable people.

And TSA now must be seen as one of the best options.  In the others, the abuser tendencies are not sanctioned and are grounds for dismissal and criminal prosecution if discovered.  But at TSA, they are official policy.  And for the exhibitionist abuser there's a bonus to abusing people openly in a public place. 

Sarcasm Alert:  I learned teaching that not everyone gets sarcasm.  I remember one class where the students kept telling a classmate, "He's being sarcastic.  He doesn't really mean it."  I mention it here because while it might appear I'm taking this lightly, I'm not.  This is serious stuff.  And while I'm confident that most TSA workers are upstanding employees who are only trying to do their difficult jobs well, there are TSA workers who enjoy touching people's "junk" and otherwise humiliating them.

But why are the normal TSA workers willing to rub their hands in the groins and on the breasts of elderly women and men who clearly are not terrorists?    I suspect that for the normally non-abuser TSA employee,  the  Stanford Prison Experiment is relevant here.

In that controversial experiment, Dr. Philip Zimbardo set up a mock prison using Stanford students who had been chosen because of their emotional and psychological stability. They were divided into prisoners and guards. They very quickly got into their roles and the guards were soon abusing the prisoners so that six days into the two week experiment it had to be called off. Dr. Zimbardo explains what happened - with footage of the experiment - in the YouTube video I found posted by .

I'd note there has been a lot of criticism about the ethics of this experiment which is addressed in the Stanford Prison Experiment link.

I would guess the same dynamics work out with TSA workers. They get into their roles and learn to believe that passengers should obey them and that groping them is very appropriate behavior and if passengers resist, they probably deserve punishment. The TSA workers have an added incentive - their paychecks and perks, which they would lose if they protested their orders.

So, even if all the TSA employees were psychologically and emotionally well adjusted when they began their jobs, if the Stanford Prison Experiment lessons are valid here, they would fall into abusive roles.

The Milgram experiment had a similar result - where people off the street are found to give greater and greater electric shocks (or so they think) to learners who miss the questions. Unlike in the Stanford experiment, Milgram's 'learners' were actors who were not actually being shocked. But Milgram's experiment demonstrated how normal people would stray way beyond the bounds of appropriate behavior if told to do so by an authority. YouTube has footage of the Milgram experiments too.

I think the TSA workers have similarly strayed way beyond acceptable behavior in their intrusive pat-downs of people who have absolutely nothing to link them to terrorism except that their artificial hips set off the metal detector or their mastectomies looked strange in the scanner.


  1. Social workers with at-risk populations get into this, too. They start out great in college, but they sigh loudly and start saying that no one will like them if they are doing their jobs right and fall into being as mean as possible, even with pleasant aspects of their jobs and interactions with people.

    When someone close to me was dying, I got felt up and sobbed through the line each time. The next time I flew, I felt like they went out of their way to be nice to me.

    If I had a mastectomy, I do not know what I would do-- perhaps I'd show up in a Speedo under a sweat suit with my blouse in my bag so I could easily flash them and tell them that the rediation from their machines would get them, too.

    We are judged in this life with the light we radiate into the lives of others and how much we help them. TSA agents who love their jobs won't do well in the next realm.

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