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The Stanford Prison Experiment: 40 years later

An article in the July/August 2011 issue of Stanford Magazine revisits one of psychology's most infamous experiments. In "The Menace Within," author Romesh Ratnesar commemorates the 40th anniversary of the Stanford Prison Experiment by talking with some of those involved, from psychologist Philip Zimbardo and his research assistant, to the college students recruited as subjects.

In August 1971, 24 male Stanford University students were randomly assigned to play the parts of prisoners or guards in a mock prison on the campus. It was designed to last two weeks, but after six days and an intervention from a concerned colleague, the experiment was shut down.  In just those six days, the abuses of power inflicted by the "guards" on their fellow students reached cruel and dehumanizing levels. "Prisoners" reacted to their assigned roles just as strongly, organizing rebellions or becoming hysterical or depressed.

Today, the tale of the Stanford Prison Experiment can be found in nearly every Introductory Psychology textbook as an example of how ordinary people can be capable of terrible things in certain adverse situations. The experiment showed how the situation trumped participants' own morals or beliefs in influencing how they behaved. Individuals conformed to the roles they were assigned and started acting in ways that they thought were required of their roles, ways that would never be acceptable in their everyday lives.

What is especially interesting about the Stanford Magazine article are the voices of others involved in the study. For example, one of the students assigned to be a guard admits that he purposefully created a persona and tried to instigate action to make the study more interesting.

Another surprise is the admission of Craig Haney, a graduate student who was responsible for overseeing the study, that the biggest worry before the experiment began was whether or not anything would even happen. He and Zimbardo expected to perhaps see subtle behavioral changes over time, but never anticipated the rapid chaos that ensued. Haney went on to become a leading authority on the psychological effects of incarceration and an advocate for prison reform. He says that he tries to never forget what he witnessed at Stanford, and to remember the power of the institutional environment over ordinary people. 

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