Even as it suggests that ordinary people harbor ugly potentialities, it also testifies to the way our circumstances shape our behavior.
Was the study about our individual fallibility, or about broken institutions?
The appeal of the experiment has a lot to do with its apparently simple setup: prisoners, guards, a fake jail, and some ground rules.
But, in reality, the Stanford County Prison was a heavily manipulated environment, and the guards and prisoners acted in ways that were largely predetermined by how their roles were presented.
It was something I was very familiar with: to take on another personality before you step out on the stage,” Eshelman said.
In fact, he continued, “I was kind of running my own experiment in there, by saying, ‘How far can I push these things and how much abuse will these people take before they say, ‘Knock it off?
To many, the Stanford experiment underscored those findings, revealing the ease with which regular people, if given too much power, could transform into ruthless oppressors.
They were willing participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment, one of the most controversial studies in the history of social psychology.
(It’s the subject of a new film of the same name—a drama, not a documentary—starring Billy Crudup, of “Almost Famous,” as the lead investigator, Philip Zimbardo.
It opens July 17th.) The study subjects, middle-class college students, had answered a questionnaire about their family backgrounds, physical- and mental-health histories, and social behavior, and had been deemed “normal”; a coin flip divided them into prisoners and guards.
According to the lore that’s grown up around the experiment, the guards, with little to no instruction, began humiliating and psychologically abusing the prisoners within twenty-four hours of the study’s start.