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What the Stanford prison experiment taught us — and didn't teach us — about evil

Posted by Jesse Singal  July 14, 2011 11:50 AM

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(Update/correction: I originally described the Stanford experiment as a "six-week experiment [called off] just two days in," rather than a two-week experiment called off six days in. I've since corrected the text.)

Via Longreads, Stanford Magazine has a fascinating piece on the infamous Stanford prison experiment. For those who never took a psychology class, in August of 1971 a psychologist named Phil Zimbardo and his colleagues took a bunch of male college students, divided them into "guards" and "prisoners," stuck them in a fake prison on the Stanford campus, and observed their subsequent interactions.

What happened next shocked the world, led to a rewriting of ethics guidelines for psychology experiments, and is still resonating today: Almost immediately, the guards started humiliating and berating the prisoners (they were told not to harm them physically, but some of their behavior certainly crept up to that that line), while the prisoners took on the attributes of, well, prisoners, in many cases slipping into profound despondency. Things got so bad that Zimbardo had to call the two-week experiment off just six days in, lest he permanently scar one of his prisoners (or unwittingly produce the world's next Josef Stalin).

Keep in mind that none of the "prisoners" had done anything wrong, that everyone knew it was all an experiment, and that the subjects were a bunch of college kids, many from very similar circumstances. And yet, simply by assigning certain roles and power relationships, Zimbardo and his colleagues were able to elicit some of the worst of human nature.

With the 40-year anniversary of the experiments approaching, Stanford Magazine writer Romesh Ratnesar solicited accounts of the experiment from many of the key participants, all of whom offer valuable reflections (I just wish there were more of them, particularly from guards and prisoners).

One thing that struck me as I read the piece was that, as much as the experiment changed how academics and intellectuals approached the problem of evil, this discussion hasn't really filtered down to the mainstream, to the day-to-day. We still throw around the term "evil" endlessly, as if maliciousness were this distant, abstract, implacable force. And yet this experiment — not to mention countless gruesome real-life versions of it perpetrated around the world by otherwise "good" people throughout history — proves rather convincingly that what we consider evil can arise far more easily than we'd like to think.

If we treated evil not as a force that can't be reckoned with, but as a thing that simply happens when the circumstances are right — and which can often be explained by psychology or neurology or whatever — we'd approach many of society's most pressing problems in far more productive ways.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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