Stanford Prison Experiments (creative commons license 2.0) (cc 2.0)

I came across the Stanford Prison Experiments while working on a paper exploring cybercrime. In 1971, a professor of Psychology at Stanford University named Philip Zimbardo conducted a bizarre experiment in which 24 students agreed to act as inmates in a mock prison. Experimental conditions were designed to promote disorientation, depersonalization and deindividualization. For example, student prison guards were provided with wooden batons (to establish their authority) and mirrored sunglasses (to prevent eye contact). Prisoners wore poorly-fitted clothing (to keep them uncomfortable) and were addressed by number only.

Even though participants knew this was just an experiment, in a very short things got out of control. Guards became violent and sadistic, and prisoners accepted humiliation. On day 2, a riot broke out on. More guards were added. Psychological tactics were employed. One prisoner had a mental break. Six days into the 14 day experiment, things were so bad that it had to be shut down. (Participants were white, upper-middle class, “normal” students from Stanford.)

Not surprisingly these experiments have been soundly criticized, for example, because of insufficient adherence to ethical guidelines, lack of peer review, and experimental bias. Yet the extreme behaviour that was exhibited, by these “normal students”, was extraordinary. Comparisons have been made to the brutal abuse by US Army personnel, of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

What is any of us capable of, given the right set of conditions?

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