The Stanford Prison Experiment

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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