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The Effects Of Authority On A Person’s Mindset: Analysis Of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

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When a person is placed in a position of power or authority the way they behave and think is altered severely. This is seen throughout history in social experiments, and in past and present world leaders. It is also seen in movies, television shows, and books nowadays. Giving a person control and authority affects their mindset, altering their sense of humanity, consequently causing them to treat the people under their control poorly.

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a book written by Ken Kesey in 1962. A quick run-down of the book is that it is about some men who are in an asylum run by a dictatorial nurse named Nurse Ratched. Nurse Ratched has had the ward under her control with no problems until a new patient arrives named McMurphy. He does not agree with the way she controls and manipulates the other men so he stands up to her authority. By the end of the novel Nurse Ratched give McMurphy a lobotomy, making him brain dead, as a way to show the other patients what happens when you question her authority.

Using her position of power Nurse Ratched constructs an extremely strict schedule that she expects everyone to follow no questions asked, “At the beginning of each day the properly dated OD card is inserted in a slot in the steel door and the walls hum up: Lights flash on in the dorm at six-thirty: the Acutes up out of bed quick as the black boys can prod them out, get them to work buffing the floor, emptying ash trays, polishing… Six-forty-five the shavers buzz and the Acutes line up in alphabetical order at the mirrors, A, B, C, D… Seven o’clock the mess hall opens… Seven-thirty back to the day room”. She behaves this way possibly because of some unknown past trauma, or more likely just because she can. Nurse Ratched has been granted with power over people who she sees as inferior to herself, by making a strict schedule and forcing everyone to follow it without change she asserts her dominance. Nurse Ratched has total autocratic control over the ward and the people in the ward. Total autocratic control is a form of control where one person controls all decisions made and takes little inputs from others. The nurse hired everyone who works there specifically for the fact that they will not stand up to her.

For example when she was looking for a doctor she would not settle for anyone. She finally settled when she met a doctor who she saw could be easily manipulated, the doctor tends to let Nurse Ratched do anything she pleases. “She finally settles for a little man with a big forehead… That’s her doctor”. The power and control given to the nurse causes her to behave malevolently, which is why she shifts blame and manipulates the people around her. “’What worries me, Billy,’ she said — I could hear the change in her voice — ‘is how your poor mother is going to take this. ‘. . . Billy flinched. . . He shook his head, begging her… He cut his throat… The poor miserable boy killed himself”. It was during this part of the novel where Nurse Ratched aggressively shamed one of the characters Billy Bibbit for sleeping with a prostitute she ends up threatening to tell his mother knowing very well that his worst nightmare would be to disappoint his mother. Billy ends up committing suicide directly caused by the fear of what the nurse told him, but the nurse shifts the blame to the character McMurphy because he was the reason Billy met the prostitute to begin with.

The negative effect of control and authority was seen also in an experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo, an American psychologist and a professor emeritus, called The Stanford Prison Experiment. Conducted in 1971 the experiment was scheduled to last two weeks but ended quickly, after only six days cause by the events that took place. All applicants were psychologically examined prior to the experiment. Out of 24 men half were randomly assigned to be guards, the others to be prisoners. The prisoners were forced to wear nothing but a smock and cap. They also had a chain around their foot, “in order to remind prisoners of the oppressiveness of their environment”. The guards were not trained at all to be officers, instead they were allowed, “to do whatever they thought was necessary in order to maintain law and order in the prison,” At first the prisoners and guards were not accustomed to their role so the guards did not really know how to assert their authority and the prisoners still felt independent and free. Eventually having authority over the prisoners became standard to the guards. They began forcing the prisoner to do push-ups as a form of punishment for breaking rules (made by the guards) and for having a negative attitude. . Zimbardo recalls thinking that this was a cruel and inappropriate form of punishment, “However, Zimbardo later learned that push-ups were often used as a form of punishment in Nazi concentration camps… one of our guards also stepped on the prisoners’ backs while they did push-ups, or made other prisoners sit or step on the backs of fellow prisoners doing their push-ups”. Rebellion started on the second day when the prisoners barricaded themselves in the cells and removed their numbers and caps. The guards felt like they need to stop the rebellion with force by, “getting a fire extinguisher which shot a stream of skin-chilling carbon dioxide, and forcing the prisoners away from the doors”. After this the guards broke into the cells and stripped the prisoners and took the ringleader to solitary confinement. “

‘The Hole,’ or solitary confinement. It was dark and very confining, about two feet wide and two feet deep, but tall enough that a ‘bad prisoner’ could stand up”. Next the guards wanted to mentally break the prisoners. The guards created a special cell for the behaved prisoners, “They got their uniforms back, got their beds back, and were allowed to wash and brush their teeth. The others were not. Well behaved prisoners also got to eat special food in the presence of the other prisoners who had temporarily lost the privilege of eating. The effect was to break the solidarity among prisoners,” Almost 36 hours in one prisoner had a mental break down and began hysterically crying and began acting psychotic. That prisoner ended up being released in account for his mental health. After he was released there was a rumor that he was going to come back with more people to break out the other men. This enraged the guards who used their authority to make the prisoners suffer. They made them clean toilets with their bare hands repetitively, wear paper bags over their heads, and do constant tiring exercises such as push-ups and jumping jacks. The experiment ended early because of how the guards were escalating their abuse towards the prisoners.

The Stanford Prison experiment is a prime example of how the ability to control another human being altered the sense of humanity in the men who played the guards. The original goal of the experiment was to study of the human response to captivity, it ended up showing how power corrupts people and causes them to do things they would not regularly do. As mentioned previously all the men in this experiment were regular college students, on a normal day outside of this experiment none of those men who played guards would probably ever think of locking someone in a tiny closet overnight or forcing people to clean dirty toilets with their bare hands. If they had seen this experiment from an outsiders view they would have been equally as shocked and disgusted by the events that went on in the Stanford Prison Experiment. This relates back to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Nurse Ratched because she did not base her decisions on how it would benefit the patients but more off of how it would benefit her own personal wants.

10 December 2020

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