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In 1971, social psychologist Phillip Zimbardo conducted his widely known ”Stanford prison experiment.” Originally planned for two weeks, the study investigated the impact of anonymity and loss of identity on prisoners and guards in a simulated penal institution.
From a pool of volunteers, Zimbardo selected well-adjusted young men who were randomly assigned to the role of prisoner or guard. Zimbardo himself assumed the role of ”superintendent.” The guards were dressed in anonymizing uniforms, equipped with night-sticks and told to run the prison in whatever way they wished, except through physical violence. Prisoners were arrested by real police officers, blindfolded, and brought to a mock prison in the basement of a Stanford University building. To increase the sense of anonymity and humiliation, prisoners only received rubber sandals and a ”Muslim smock” showing their prisoner number as clothing.
The study quickly devolved into a situation of great hostility, in which prisoners and guards absorbed their respective roles. Following a crushed prisoner revolt, the guards’ regime became increasingly sadistic and abusive, relying on public humiliation, solitary confinement, sleep deprivation and starvation. The result was depression and extreme emotional disturbance among the prisoners, five of whom had to be released prior to the termination of the experiment. Zimbardo, immersed in his own role in running the prison hierarchy, failed to stop most of the human rights abuses. The experiment was ended after only six days after a social psychologist unrelated to the study objected to its horrifying conditions.
According to Zimbardo, the results of this experiment illustrate that the fulfillment of social roles within a closed social system can overwhelm any individual moral standards – including his own. The prison study is also known as an ethical fiasco because researchers failed to protect the human rights of their research participants.
- Zimbardo, P. G. (2007) The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. Random House, New York.