Everyday Evil, Part 2: The Stanford Prison Study

In 1971 Philip Zimbardo conducted one of the most famous studies in psychological history. The Stanford Prison Study is so well known that many of you have probably heard about it. The link is to the home site of the SPS. The YouTube clip shows some of the original footage from the study. For more details about the SPS, Zimbardo recently published his treatise on the experiment, The Lucifer Effect. Wikipedia is also available.

For the uninitiated, the basic history of the SPS is as follows. Zimbardo, wanting to study the effects of prison on both guards and prisoners, created a prison in one of the Stanford University buildings. He screened male volunteer participants and excused any with signs of psychopathology. He was left with a group of normal, well-adjusted participants. Average Joes. He then randomly assigned the participants to either the guard or prisoner group. The guards where contacted and oriented. The prisoners were tracked down, arrested (what a way to start a study!), booked, and placed in the prison.

So far, so good.

The SPS is famous because the experiment was never completed. The observations of the prisoners and the guards was to last for two weeks. But the study was terminated after six days. The reason for this was that the guards had become so sadistic in their treatment of the prisoners that, due to ethical and safety concerns, the study was terminated. In short, after six days the SPS became its own little hell on earth.

What is so troubling about the SPS is that, with the flip of a coin, the moral destinies of the guards and prisoners were set into motion. Tails, you become a compliant prisoner. Heads, a sadistic overlord. Moral luck captured in the laboratory.

Why did the guards become sadistic? I have not yet read The Lucifer Effect, so my analysis may be redundant with Zimbardo's, but a few things seem clear:

1. Power Differentials
2. In-Group versus Out-Group psychology
3. Group Conformity

The point is, in situations where we see these dynamics emerge normal and generally good people can end up doing some pretty atrocious things. Why, exactly, are humans vulnerable to these pressures? In my next post I'll offer some speculations on this question, but for today just note that we ARE vulnerable to these pressures.

It should also be noted that Zimbardo served as an expert witness in the Abu Ghraib trial of US serviceman Ivan Fredrick. Obviously, the events at Abu Ghraib are eerily similar to the SPS. And this brings us back to the issue of everyday evil.

When we look at Abu Ghraib we often fall into making the fundamental attribution error (see post #1 in this series). We tend to see some "bad" soldiers running amuck. Perhaps. But the SPS suggests that good people can do sadistic things, uncharacteristic things, when systemic pressures are brought to bear. As Zimbardo has argued, it might not be a few bad apples spoiling the bunch. It might, rather, be a few bad barrels creating those bad apples.

Again, this is not to say situations determine our actions or that we should not hold people accountable for their actions. My purpose is simply to use the SPS as a moral warning. Good people can do bad things if they are not attentive to situational pressures. In short, the possibility for evil is closer than we think.

It can be, literally, just a coin flip away.

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7 thoughts on “Everyday Evil, Part 2: The Stanford Prison Study”

  1. Um, Wow. I really don't know what to say here, so I'm only thinking (typing) outloud here:

    I have not heard of this study before, so going into without any real knowledge of what happens, I assumed that the ones who played the roles of the prisoners would be the ones to change and abuse eachother. I was shocked to see that it was the guards who abused and got lost in the "role play."

    For some reason, as Pastor Bob says, I was terrified of the thought that we really don't know what we are capable of given our circumstances.

    I also find this interesting because given the "roles" of the individuals seemed to help shape thier behavior. Do you think then, that it is bad to give people "roles." For example, the role of, say, elder in the church, or a role of any kind of authority, or roles of submisiveness. For some reason this post made me think that men or women really can't handle positions of power all that well, or maybe that "roles" we so called are to play really do have a negative effect on us. In other words, we let our "roles" define us, and shape us, and even take control over us, instead of using our "role" to help others.... Not sure if you know what I mean but this is a scary thing!!

  2. Bob,
    I agree. I used to be scared of hell. But nowadays, I'm mainly scared of myself.

    I do think hierarchies (the leadership roles you mention) are risky. More on that in the next post!

    A Go player! Yes, I played chess for years, but now I prefer Go.

    Very funny!

  3. Richard,

    The problem with the SPS is that it shows certain humans in certain troubled circumstances. But these circumstances were themselves set up by certain "authority figures" whose own emotional make-up and thought processes weren't examined: the psych professors and experts. The good (and telling) thing is that the experiment wasn't repeated.

    But what if it had? What if it had been repeated using different populations--say, older men and women of Amish faith.

    The French psychologist and sociologist Gustave LeBon wrote about group pressures in his classic The Crowd in 1895. He argued that groups are easily manipulated by charismatic or influential authorities and (dirty-minded young Frenchman that he was:)) that the manipulation was like a man seducing a woman. Despite protestations to the contrary, those who structured the SPS were blindly naive to their own seductive behavior. But why would they have expected anything else? Prisons are structured, as Foucault has noted, to mimic hell and its torments. Those same Stanford psych authorities would likely have expected celebate behavior had they given each of those young men a hundred dollar bill and sent them as a group to a cathouse. As my step-grandfather would say: "Lie down with dogs. Get up with fleas."

    The fact is: we have suspicions but none of us really knows how we would behave under abnormal or crisis circumstances.


    George C.

  4. Richard

    I think this approach does free us up to view evil in a bit more of a helpful way. However, I think a potential concern is that in the excess this view leads to a certain seperationist view from culture... fearing any situation may lead a person into an evil mindset. The transformation of a situation (i.e. engaging and attempt to right the evils in the world) does require a high level of engagement. How do you think one maintains a high enough view of individual apart from situations that they engage those evil inducing contexts, while at the same time with a humble realization that the situation can have a powerful impact on their character and actions?


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