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‘A big problem is nursing’s perceived powerlessness’


Some of you will be familiar with the slightly scary social psychology research known as the ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’. It investigated the psychological effects of perceived power and took place in 1971.

A group of students were selected and divided randomly into two groups; guards and prisoners. Within 24 hours without instruction, the guards began to psychologically abuse and humiliate the prisoners who became submissive and depersonalised. The two-week experiment was terminated after six days due to the extreme behaviour that emerged so quickly.

“It is best to never, ever trust psychologists. Ever”

One third of the guards were considered to have exhibited sadistic tendencies and many of the ‘prisoners’ were emotionally traumatised. Bizarrely, over 50 people observed the experiment but only one, a woman called Christina Maslach, objected to the conditions and called for it to be stopped. The lead investigator, Phillip Zombardo later married Ms Maslach. I don’t know if that was another experiment.

Perhaps ‘Stanford’ serves to remind us of some fundamental truths. First, people are weird aren’t they? Give them a bit of power and they want to march on Poland, or at least all over other people. Second, it is best to never, ever trust psychologists. Ever. Third, it is entirely feasible that Jeremy Hunt is a psychology experiment established to see just how much nonsense a nation could take and the people running the experiment fell down a well and only they know where the off switch is.

Fourth, the seventies were rubbish. It wasn’t just psychology experiments it was everything: The Bay City Rollers, The Dukes of Hazard, hotpants. Today you have iPads? We had the Etch-a-Sketch and Spirograph. It is possible it tells us something about how people express, use or misunderstand power.

Arguably one of the biggest problems nursing has faced in recent years is its perceived powerlessness. So-called leaders have felt ‘powerless’ to defend the systematic disinvestment in the profession and powerless to effectively challenge the politics that sideline nursing.

Budget holders have felt powerless to protect service provision and indeed workloads, recruitment, retention or planning. Clinicians have often felt powerless to provide the service they aspire to.

Powerlessness in the face of poor policy and economics has served to undermine nursing. Despite an aggressive political climate, nurses have found ways to deliver care with creativity, personal resource, teamwork and resilience. People find power where it often feels as if there is none or where it is limited.

“Power lies in the small things, interventions of care or thoughtfulness”

Stanford illustrated what we can see in the NHS every day. That power corrupts and people often service those who have more power than them rather than those who have less, perhaps because they are scared or because they want more power.

I have always believed that power, in some form or another, is always available to us even when we may feel stripped of it – often quite ironically by people who have pursued power to somehow ‘make a difference’ when they get it.

I sometimes wonder if much of the modern world is a weird psychology experiment that will end soon. Power lies in the small things, interventions of care or thoughtfulness.

Nursing reclaims lost power with small acts of brilliance, it does it every day, at the bedside or in the home and those expressions make a profound difference to lives everywhere. As we say to our students every year: what a powerful thing a good nurse can be.

Mark Radcliffe is senior lecturer, and author of Stranger than Kindness.

Follow him on Twitter: @markacradcliffe.


Readers' comments (2)

  • Nurses,

    You are powerful.
    Some of your power lies in your kindness, the ability for you to remove pain, make patients smile and laugh. Having empathy and knowing what a patient goes through and showing love is important as the patient recognises you understand what s/he is going through.


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  • Lovely article and true, it is the small acts of brilliance that so make s a differance to many peoples lifes. A smile and thoughtful act to use that power for the good of a person. X

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