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The Stanford Prisoner Experiment - 40 Years On 175

cheros writes "It's now 40 years ago that the Stanford prisoner experiment went ugly so quickly it had to be aborted. Stanford has an interesting piece called The Menace Within that looks back on this momentous psychological experiment. From the article: 'What happened in the basement of the psych building 40 years ago shocked the world. How do the guards, prisoners and researchers in the Stanford Prison Experiment feel about it now?'"
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The Stanford Prisoner Experiment - 40 Years On

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  • Guantanamo Bay (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Normal Dan ( 1053064 ) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @06:12PM (#36755326)
    Now imagine this same experiment being done for for several years instead of days and with no one to step in when things get out of hand.

    Now imagine if the guards were told the prisoners were evil terrorists.
  • Re:Faked? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by countertrolling ( 1585477 ) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @06:14PM (#36755346) Journal

    Obviously you have no understanding of the nature of power and desire for it. It has been been well documented since ancient times. And the biggest "experiment" ever in 1920s-30s Germany has been written up in the most convincing manner by many psychologists.

    It's too bad they say the experiment should never be performed again. Every student should be required to go through it, and maybe we can mitigate the revival of the savagery we are going through now. Simply reading up on it is not enough.

  • Movie (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Warlord88 ( 1065794 ) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @07:00PM (#36755770)
    The German movie Das Experiment [] is based on this experiment. Although they exaggerate quite a lot towards the end, first few days of the movie are real. Overall, an entertaining watch.
  • Re:Guantanamo Bay (Score:5, Insightful)

    by dmbasso ( 1052166 ) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @07:02PM (#36755794)

    Now imagine if the guards were told the prisoners were evil terrorists.

    And then what if they were?

    Now imagine you and some of your family were captured together with all the terrorists. Yeah, they are really terrorists! You and yours? Whatever, I don't give a fuck. Fuck you all.

  • Re:Movie (Score:2, Insightful)

    by geekoid ( 135745 ) <dadinportland&yahoo,com> on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @07:30PM (#36756054) Homepage Journal

    Zimbardo can go on and on about the experiments scientific important, but he is wrong.

    It was so poorly designer, got so out of control, and had no controls that any data is useless to anyone with the sole exception of people looking at what not to do in an experiment.

  • Re:Faked? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by yali ( 209015 ) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @07:31PM (#36756070)

    There's faked and then there's faked.

    If you mean "they made the whole thing up like the moon landing," then no. There's no reason to believe that kind of conspiracy.

    But based on contemporary accounts, even from Zimbardo himself, it's pretty clear that he stepped well past his role as an objective researcher and became an active instigator -- appointing himself warden and egging on the guards. But even with that acknowledged, the fact that he was able to succeed so easily is part of what makes it an important demonstration.

  • by Demena ( 966987 ) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @07:44PM (#36756226)
    No not IT departments. But they did form a whole core fro it. The TSA. That is precisely why such petty bureaucrats are a menace to society.
  • Re:Faked? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Demena ( 966987 ) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @07:46PM (#36756260)
    Actually it is repeated every day. I am pretty sure that is what happens to people employed by the TSA.
  • by manaway ( 53637 ) * on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @08:23PM (#36756726)

    The way they all got so pulled into the experiment is just crazy. Luckily, Zimbardo's grad student girlfriend came around.

    This is one of the most fascinating insights: it's not crazy but typical. These were students who tested average on psychological exams (to the extent you can measure average), and still did these atrocious acts on people just like themselves. On fellow students whose only crime was the flip of a coin. Want further evidence? See the Milgram experiment [], where 2/3rds of people were willing to kill another person because an authority figure told them to. Not bad apples, not racists, not evil doers [], not terrorists, just people--you and me and our neighbors.

    The experiments are no longer allowed in psychiatric studies, but are allowed in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Egypt (under Mubarak, not sure about now), Romania, Israel (where torture testimony is admissible), Afghanistan, and others. Where is Zimbardo's girlfriend now? You, me, our neighbors?

  • all too real (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tverbeek ( 457094 ) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @08:39PM (#36756918) Homepage

    The simple conclusion demonstrated by this experiment is that, while sometimes people will live up to others' expectations for them, we we have an even stronger tendency to live down to what's expected of us. I think Richard Yacco (a "prisoner") made the most insightful comment in the article:

    One thing that I thought was interesting about the experiment was whether, if you believe society has assigned you a role, do you then assume the characteristics of that role? I teach at an inner city high school in Oakland. These kids don't have to go through experiments to witness horrible things. But what frustrates my colleagues and me is that we are creating great opportunities for these kids, we offer great support for them, why are they not taking advantage of it? Why are they dropping out of school? Why are they coming to school unprepared? I think a big reason is what the prison study shows—they fall into the role their society has made for them.

  • by Anonymous Bullard ( 62082 ) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @09:34PM (#36757430) Homepage

    I'm not sure if everyone should go though the experiment per se, but certainly societies would benefit if everyone was taught about it, and human behaviour and moral in general.

    Germany in the 1930s and 1940s after the Nazional Sozialists had grabbed control of the government (and the media) is a very good case study of what happens when sections of population are labelled "enemies", "unfit" and eventually even sub-human. There the perpetrators had been brainwashed with a sense of injustice and anger over post-WWI suffering and the domestic "unfits" (based on propaganda definitions) were made scapegoats.

    Yet repression and murder in even larger scale took place after the Nazi "experiment" - in the gulags and laogai under Stalin's and Mao's communist party dictatorships.

    Arguably the Chinese were the most brutal in the treatment of their enemies (something to do with the traditional art of torture and the domestic imperial history there?). Under the territories invaded by Mao's red army the foreign enemies (like Tibetans, Mongolians and Uighurs) were easy to identify as they didn't share any of the sinized Han-people's charasteristics - they were also commonly treated as sub-humans for that very reason (Tibetans as devout buddhists were targeted for particularly brutal punishment), but after the initial phase of Chinese military expansion and consolidation something unique happened: Mao's "Cultural Revolution".

    While the title sounds deceptively docile, the reality was anything but. Here, in mid-60s, Mao decided that "old thinking" had to go. All of it. A horde of young, maoism-indoctrinated youth were given the authority / order to challenge anything that could somehow be perceived to contradict the infamous Mao's red book. For about a decade _everyone_ was an enemy unless he or she could prove the Red Guards - often by committing acts of brutality against "other enemies" - his or her blind loyalty to the "cause" of New China. One of the saddest representations of this was the widespread turning of children against their own parents who had until then loved and cared for them! The loyalty towards one's family had to be destroyed as it threatened the absolute power of the Party.

    After the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 that Party held an emergency meeting in Beijing and after coming to the conclusion that communism as a political doctrine or economic model simply wasn't effective any longer, they decided - internally - to switch de facto doctrines to Confucianism (as nationalistic philosophy) and... national socialism (adapted to globalist markets), with capitalist/corporatist carrots for the Party's inner core (the leading families of "PRC" are now fabulously wealthy!). Old communist propaganda is still being played out as a justification for the Party's "legitimacy" though, and such propaganda is still key part of everyday control in poorer inland parts of China and especially in the occupied territories annexed through military force. Foreigners are still depicted as criminals who haven't paid for their sins over the "humiliation of China", although various "domestic movements" there (not forgetting the bloody war by communists themselves against the Republic of China) account for the vast majority of human cost and every other once wholly western-ruled nation (incl. the multi-cultural India) has gotten over their past "humiliation". What does needing artificial external enemies say about China's ruling dictatorship itself?

    Blind obedience, often in order to benefit oneself or to save one's own life, and the accompanying willingness to inflict suffering on others... it tends to go together with ignorance (then redefining) of morality (right vs wrong, perceived or imaginary injustice), absolute propaganda to shape the population's value models and numbing violence and abuse.

    I believe we have enough examples of abuse of authority by now. What we need is to actually make learning about them, and morality and philosophy in general, a truly intergral part of education so that most p

  • Re:Faked? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by demonlapin ( 527802 ) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @09:43PM (#36757506) Homepage Journal
    Probably not. The shocking part about the Zimbardo experiment was not that guards are cruel; the shocking part is that there were no ground rules insisting that the "guards" be cruel. They could have chosen to play cards with the "prisoners" - given that they were mostly (all?) Stanford undergrads, they very likely knew some of them. Once you go to a real prison, the prisoners are just more scumbags you have to keep in line.
  • by Okian Warrior ( 537106 ) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @09:47PM (#36757560) Homepage Journal

    I don't think that the events of the experiment are in any way unexpected, with the exception of Zimbardo's girlfriend intervening.

    I think quite highly of Zimbardo, so I don't believe it's his fault. It's because of all of our social conditioning.

    We're never schooled in ethics. We're only occasionally *sometimes* told the difference between right and wrong, but overall we're just expected to know where these concepts are without a map. Breaking a promise is wrong, but when the principal wants to know something you promised to keep secret, see if he thinks ethics is a good excuse.

    Schools teach compliance in a big way. Government and industry and pretty much everyone in charge will tell you that it's no use - there's nothing you can do. Be on the wrong side of a policeman, prosecutor, judge, politician, your boss, or the town council to see what I mean.

    And even if anyone knows where the boundaries of ethics lie, there's no real chance to practice the decisions in the field. In any emotional situation your cognitive functions shut down and you rely completely on stored habits. That's a survival tactic - the stored programs can be executed very fast without spending any time to think - but it means that if you haven't set up any mental patterns to recognize injustice and speak out against it it won't happen during a situation where it's needed. Only after the fact.

    People who practice role-playing in various forms (LARP, emergency training, EMT, police, navy seals) get around it by learning not to react emotionally and by making patterns which are useful because they've been thought out in advance.

    So we have a big population which is schooled in compliance, where no formal ethical standards are taught and where ethical rules are often violated for any expedient reason. Drop some of these in a fearful situation and you're surprised that they don't react?

    I'm surprised at the reaction of his girlfriend, and much more surprised that she *insisted* in the face of his resistance.

  • by JudeanPeople'sFront ( 729601 ) on Thursday July 14, 2011 @02:06AM (#36759196)
    Come to think of it, our whole society is one big Stanford Prisoner Experiment. The uniformed "civil servants" around us have no more power than what we have allowed them to have.

"There is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress." -- Mark Twain