What could happen to a person who has been kidnapped?

Ariel Castro, the Cleveland rapist or the Cleveland kidnapper is back in court and he is back in the news.

The Cleveland kidnapping makes one think about what may have happened to the three victims, Amanda Berry, Gina De Jesus and Michelle Knight? Words like horrible, abuse, torture could really express what has happened to the three victims? What do we know about what can happen in a situation in which a person has total control over another?
The famous Zimbardo Stanford Prison Experiment is in social psychology the closest we can get to conceive what could happen to the victims of kidnapping.

In 1971 Philip Zimbardo wanted to see ascertain whether certain personality characteristics correlated with abusive behaviour. To test this hypothesis he had volunteers undergo a pre-screening and complete a battery of psychological tests to ascertain their psychological stability, health and whether they had any previous criminal involvement. The 24 chosen subjects were mostly middle class and were randomly assigned to the role of guards or prisoners in the Stanford Prison Experiment. The experiment wanted to mimic as close as possible life in jail; for example, the guards used a baton, the prisoners were given baby dolls like clothes and a section of the university basement was transformed in a jail-like environment with locked doors.

The experiment was supposed to last two weeks, but was interrupted after only six days because of the abuses inflicted by the guards to the prisoners. In such a short time the guards assumed a sadistic role, created degrading procedures, while the prisoners felt powerless and they assumed a passive role.

After an initial attempt to “resist” the guards, the prisoners broke down emotionally and demonstrated unexpected symptoms such as depression, distress, skin rashes, or changed their behaviour trying to become “good prisoners” or assuming a “more than the guards” attitude when performing guard’s requests.

According to Zimbardo, by the sixth day, the prisoners behaved very much like prisoners of war of hospitalized mental patients. Interestingly, none of the guards quit, while the “good guards” felt themselves powerless to do anything to change the situation.

The Stanford Prison Experiment was by definition an experiment which could have and was interrupted. Knowing what we know about how normal, healthy, stable, middle class humans can behave, we can only imagine what being kidnapped by Ariel Castro (described in the news as a violent individual with sexual sadistic tendencies) and being abused for a decade would have been like for Amanda Berry, Gina De Jesus and Michelle Knight.

Dr. Giorgio Ilacqua