Details of the experiment are well known. They are included in most basic psychology texts and in a public television psychology course, "Discovering Psychology," that Zimbardo wrote and narrates. Movie rights have been optioned, "60 Minutes" has filmed a segment on the experiment, and even a punk rock band in Los Angeles calls itself Stanford Prison Experiment. In summary:
On Sunday morning, Aug., 17, 1971, nine young men were "arrested" in their homes by Palo Alto police. At least one of those arrested vividly remembers the shock of having his neighbors come out to watch the commotion as TV cameras recorded his hand-cuffing for the nightly news.
The arrestees were among about 70 young men, mostly college students eager to earn $15 a day for two weeks, who volunteered as subjects for an experiment on prison life that had been advertised in the Palo Alto Times. After interviews and a battery of psychological tests, the two dozen judged to be the most normal, average and healthy were selected to participate, assigned randomly either to be guards or prisoners. Those who would be prisoners were booked at a real jail, then blindfolded and driven to campus where they were led into a makeshift prison in the basement of Jordan Hall.
Those assigned to be guards were given uniforms and instructed that they were not to use violence but that their job was to maintain control of the prison.
From the perspective of the researchers, the experiment became exciting on day two when the prisoners staged a revolt. Once the guards had crushed the rebellion, "they steadily increased their coercive aggression tactics, humiliation and dehumanization of the prisoners," Zimbardo recalls. "The staff had to frequently remind the guards to refrain from such tactics," he said, and the worst instances of abuse occurred in the middle of the night when the guards thought the staff was not watching. The guards' treatment of the prisoners such things as forcing them to clean out toilet bowls with their bare hands and act out degrading scenarios, or urging them to become snitches "resulted in extreme stress reactions that forced us to release five prisoners, one a day, prematurely."
The residual effects of role-socialization lingered even past the end of the study - In a post-experiment discussion session, the "prisoners" were uniformly happy the experiment was over, but most of the guards were upset that the study was terminated prematurely.
Most of us flatter ourselves and believe we are rational, benevolent individuals - and in many circumstances, that may very well be the case. But as the Prison Experiment (and recent personal experience, interestingly enough) reveal, seemingly well-adjusted and nice people can turn downright vicious if given the opportunity to do so.
What does this say about our essential humanity?
(Stanford Prison Experiment)