The Stanford Prison Experiment

When I was studying psychology I read about the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, in which a number of psychologically healthy students were divided into two groups to play prison in the basement of a Stanford building. Within days, the “guards” were abusing the “prisoners” so badly that the experiment was called off. The experiment showed how having absolute power over others can corrupt our ethics, as well as the power of context and role to shape our actions.

The head researcher of the Stanford Prison Experiment, Philip Zimbardo, drew parallels between the experiment and the Abu Ghraib scandal. While not letting the low-level guards who became torturers off the hook entirely, Zimbardo argued that instead we should be indicting the system at the prison and the people who set it up, as torture and abuse were practically inevitable under those circumstances. He has now published a book called The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, and you can read a transcript of a supportive interview with Zimbardo at–it has some riveting quotes from student “guards” and “prisoners” from the experiment. You can also read a rebuttal to Zimbardo’s arguments about the Abu Ghraib guards at What do you think? Was the problem the “bad apples,” the “bad barrel,” both, or something else?

There’s also a related but much more positive article on what the Stanford Experiment teaches us about heroism and how we can “nurture the heroic imagination” at We do have the power to act for good even in the worst circumstances–we just need to remember that we do.