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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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  • The Lucifer Effect (Score:5, Interesting)

    by bigsexyjoe ( 581721 ) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @06:06PM (#36755270)

    By the way, Zimbardo's book about it, The Lucifer Effect is absolutely fascinating. The way they all got so pulled into the experiment is just crazy. Luckily, Zimbardo's grad student girlfriend came around. You see Zimbardo got so pulled into his own role as the experimenter/warden that he lost site of the fact that the experiment had become extremely inhumane and he needed to stop it. They needed new eyes to come in and end it.

    What is even more interesting than Zimbardo not ending the thing was the prisoners not ending it. After all, they weren't actually prisoners. They should have just walked away.

    He also has a fascinating discussion on Abu Ghraib. He discusses the personalities involved in the events and how it led to it. (The sociopath who started it. His girlfriend Lindy England, who got pulled in. The leader of the facility who couldn't pull the situation under control and who's appeals to superiors fell on death ears.)

    It is amazing that we do actually live in a world where people willing become slaves. This experiment gave us great insights into social psychology.

  • by overshoot ( 39700 ) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @06:13PM (#36755340)
    Probably the most important social psychology experiment ever. It's totally transformed the way the United States is governed.
  • by Man On Pink Corner ( 1089867 ) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @06:40PM (#36755594)

    Zimbardo essentially selected the people most likely to produce the result that would "confirm" his hypothesis.

    Which is the most chilling implication of the experiment! The idea that you can always find people willing to do harmful things while the rest stand aside is enough to undermine the whole concept of individual morality.

    Together with the equally infamous Milgram experiment, which has been shown to be reproducible under all sorts of conditions, Zimbardo's work shows how humans, as basically non-'evil' beings, rationalize and perpetuate organized acts of evil. (How many times have you heard someone say, "If I don't do $BAD_THING, somebody else will. Maybe the best thing to do is for me to take the job, and try to change the system from within"?)

  • by Man On Pink Corner ( 1089867 ) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @06:48PM (#36755680)

    But don't underestimate the psychological barrier that merely being told "you can't quit" amounts to when you're already in a situation of powerlessness.

    Here's another good example [] of the same phenomenon -- in this case, the people who were told "you can't quit" bravely stayed in the game until they earned their own Darwin award.

    People who criticize Zimbardo's experiment on the grounds that it was 'unscientific' or 'unethical' are missing the whole point. It may have been both unscientific and unethical, but it damned sure wasn't irreproducible.

  • TSA (Score:5, Interesting)

    by hoggoth ( 414195 ) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @06:48PM (#36755684) Journal

    This experiment is being conducted right now by the TSA.

  • Re:Faked? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by artor3 ( 1344997 ) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @08:22PM (#36756718)

    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.

    I've often wondered what would happen if the experiment were repeated with people who were aware of the original outcome. And I mean really aware of it, not just that they heard about it in passing. Would knowledge of how low people can sink keep them on the straight and narrow? If so, it could become a useful training exercise for prison guards.

  • Re:Faked? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by artor3 ( 1344997 ) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @10:57PM (#36758170)

    I know how the experiment worked. It is established that people given power with no (or poor) guidance on how to use that power will abuse it. But if people are made acutely aware of that fact, will they think "Hey, I don't want to be like that" and make a conscious effort to control their own actions?

    For example, if you give unlimited alcohol and no ground rules to a bunch of teens, they're probably going to get drunk out of their minds. But once they've learned about alcohol abuse, and gone to a few parties and seen how drunken idiots act, they'll drink more responsibly, simply because they don't want to be that guy. This experiment is repeated all across the country every year, and it seems to work out.

  • Abu Ghraib (Score:5, Interesting)

    by formfeed ( 703859 ) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:12PM (#36758294)

    When the abuse in Abu Ghraib became public I was surprised by the reactions. Not the shock and/or denial by the public. But the way the soldiers were singled out as a "few bad apples" by people higher up in command.

    How apparently normal, non-sadistic, average 20 year olds turned into sadistic guards was classic Zimbardo. I immediately thought of Zimbardo's prison experiment: There doesn't need to be a direct order, all it takes is an environment with unspecific rules and guards wanting to fulfill their role.

    Not to defend the soldiers involved in the abuse, but Zimbardo is pretty well known. Either people in charge didn't have the proper skills to set-up a clear structure that would prevent this or they deliberately counted on it to happen, being later able to deny any responsibility and scape-goat the "guards".

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