Back in 1971, Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford psychology professor, set up an experiment that quickly and now famously went awry. Here, Zimbardo had undergraduates play the role of prisoners and prison guards in a mock prison environment. Meant to last two weeks, the experiment was cut short after only six days when the guards, as The Stanford Prison Experiment web site puts it, “became sadistic and [the] prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.” For Zimbardo, the way things played out says a lot about what happens when good people are put in bad situations. And it speaks to how torture scenarios, like those at Abu Ghraib, become possible. (For more on the parallels between the prison experiment and the torture in Iraq, you may want to check out Zimbardo’s talk at a recent conference called “Thinking Humanity After Abu Ghraib.”
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