The Stanford Prison Study
Posted on March 5th, 2017

Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge 

A world renowned social psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted a prison simulation study in 1971 at the Stanford University with his student volunteers. He randomly divided these volunteers into guards and inmates and then placed in a mock prison environment. This study continued for six days and Zimbardo observed radical behavioural changes in guards and prisoners over time. He noticed sadistic abuse in prison guards and abject submissiveness among the prisoners.   Professor Zimbado’s Stanford prison experiment uncovered the manifestation of deindividuation, vandalism and dehumanization when ordinary people were put in to specific authoritative figures with unlimited power and control over others. He showed that ordinary people could be led to engage in anti-social acts by putting them in situations where they felt anonymous. This simulation study demonstrated how ordinary people sometimes turn evil and commit atrocities.

The Stanford Prison

The Stanford prison experiment narrates the power of roles, rules, symbols, group identity and situational validation of behaviour. When the prison experiment was continuing the prisoners demonstrated symptoms of depression   and extreme stress while the guards had become more and more sadistic. This research revealed the psychological impact of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. Many years after this research Philip Zimbado expressed his thoughts thus.

“It does tell us that human nature is not totally under the control of what we like to think of as free will, but that the majority of us can be seduced into behaving in ways totally atypical of what we believe we are,” 

The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

Professor Philip Zimbardo’s 2007 book ‘The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil’ argues that people are not born good or born evil. He gives numerous case examples how the situational forces and group dynamics affect people to commit atrocities.

……..the idea that an unbridgeable chasm separates good people from bad people is a, source of comfort for at least two reasons. First, it creates a binary logic, in which, Evil is essentialized. Most of us perceive Evil as an entity, a quality that is inherent, in some people and not in others. Bad seeds ultimately produce bad fruits as their destinies unfold. We define evil by pointing to the really bad tyrants in our era, such as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, and other political, leaders who have orchestrated mass murders. We must also acknowledge the, more ordinary, lesser evils of drug dealers, rapists, sex-trade traffickers, perpetrators of fraudulent scams on the elderly, and those whose bullying destroys the, well-being of our children………….

………… War engenders cruelty and barbaric behavior against anyone considered the, Enemy, as the dehumanized, demonic other. The Rape of Nanking is notorious, for the graphic detail of the horrific extremes soldiers went to degrade and destroy innocent civilian “enemy non-combatants.” However, was it a singular incident and not just another part of the historical tapestry of such inhumanities, against civilians we might think it an anomaly. British troops executed and raped civilians during the U. S. Revolutionary War. Soviet Red Army soldiers raped an estimated 100,000 Berlin women toward the end of World War II and between, 1945 and 1948. In addition to the rapes and murders of more than 500 civilians, at the My Lai massacre in 1968, recently released secret Pentagon evidence describes 320 incidents of American atrocities against Vietnamese and Cambodian, civilians. (The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil )

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