How the Stanford Prison Experiment explains Savior outpost leaders like Simon

Dwight and Gordon - The Walking Dead, AMC
Dwight and Gordon - The Walking Dead, AMC /

Is it possible that the Savior outposts are more dangerous than Negan and the Sanctuary? The Stanford Prison Experiment might offer an explanation.

It’s bad enough having a guy like Negan looming large over an entire region. What’s worse is that after getting to know Simon in “Go Getters” we now know that the leaders of Negan’s outposts might be even worse than he is. Tanya and the women of Oceanside recounted the horrors of the Saviors who came and lined up the men and boys and shot them in the head, yet another example of a nearby outpost acting on Negan’s behalf.

What accounts for this kind of behavior? When you strip Negan bare and set aside, for the moment, that he delights in crushing skulls with his bat, Negan is rather predictable. He has a playbook and he plays by his own rules. Break the rules, face the consequences.

These outposts, though, seem to operate under a different set of rules. While the leaders of these outposts are every bit as accountable to Negan as everyone else, it looks like they take some freedoms in how they do things. How do normal people go from zero to Simon?

The Stanford Prison Experiment might offer an explanation.

In 1971 Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo conducted a study on perceived power that became known as the Stanford Prison Experiment. He selected a handful of participants to assume the roles of prison guards and another group to be the prisoners.

The experiment was meant to last 7-14 days but it stopped abruptly when things became too intense. Not only did the participants accept their roles, but they took their roles to a very different level. The prison guards became abusive very quickly, and surprisingly many of the prisoners accepted the abuse even though they could have walked away at any time.

The prisoners and guards were blown away at the results of the study after watching the portions that were recorded: “I was their prisoner.” “I felt like I was losing my identity.” “It’s easy for you to say [you] wouldn’t have acted that way, but you don’t know.”

What this study revealed is that people who are given positions of power change, especially when they justify their actions as being part of their orders. That allows them to believe that they’re acting under orders and that no matter what they do, they’re not really to blame.

The United States military was keenly interested in this study and the US Office of Naval Research provided funding for it. As my political science professor once explained, there are many times when soldiers do things in times of war that they don’t agree with, but they do it because they’re acting under orders. This is how they process and compartmentalize their actions. However, some people take their orders to the next level and start enjoying it. He used the example of normal German citizens becoming Nazi soldiers who killed their Jewish neighbors. Many of those soldiers followed orders knowing their lives were on the line. However, other Nazi soldiers delighted in what they were doing.

The Stanford study shows us that giving someone a sense of power changes their behavior.

How does this relate to Simon and the Saviors?

Negan has created a world at the Sanctuary that revolves around discipline and severe consequences for disobedience. He has placed his men all around the area at outposts that enforce his rules at the communities he “owns,” and each of those outposts has a man in charge. Simon is one such example.

Many fans agree that Simon was probably a jerk before the apocalypse, but how do you explain the behavior of every one of Negan’s men? Fear is absolutely a factor. These men know that if they fall out of line, they die. In Dwight’s case, Negan took his wife from him as a punishment. Fear in itself is enough to exact obedience.

Some of the outpost leaders seem to be going above and beyond in their duties. A guy like Simon shows us that he doesn’t just do his job because he has to; he’s doing it because he likes it. The Stanford experiment guards went from average college students to brutal guards who made their “prisoners” do all kinds of horrible things, all within a time frame of six days.

What this tells us is that there are two kinds of men in Negan’s camp: Those who act out of fear, and those who act out of desire. Based on what my comic book reading friends say, killing kids doesn’t seem to line up with Negan’s modus operandi. That suggests that the outpost leader who killed the Oceanside men was acting of his own accord. His missive was likely to “deal with the situation” after they fought back against the Saviors.

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It’s even possible that Negan has no idea what happened to all of those men and boys, but it’s highly likely that Negan was furious when the women fled under the cover of night. Negan lost his workers. He doesn’t like that kind of thing because it means he lost a source of “income” from this group, so you can bet that the outpost leader caught some heat for allowing an entire community to sneak away.

Human nature is a funny thing. Give someone a position of power and that power can go to his head. Negan’s outpost leaders enjoy being the boss’s lieutenants but whether or not their actions reflect Negan’s orders remains to be seen.