The Experiment That Proved We're All Capable Of Cruelty If Given The Chance

You've heard about this weird combination of role play and research that ended terribly wrong, but what was the true purpose of it? Meet the Stanford Prison experiment.

When we hear of violent acts in our community or across the globe, it’s easy to be pessimistic towards humanity. We wonder if we deserve to even continue existing. If all we are is brutal creatures, capable of hurting ourselves and others, what is the point? Many of us have asked ourselves whether this horrible side is part of ourselves, a dark side we keep hidden and controlled beneath the mask of civility, one that is desperately waiting to come out at the slightest provocation.

In 1971, the Stanford Psychology Department conducted an experiment of Prison behavior. A selected group of participants volunteered and were tested to be deemed “normal” enough to be neutral. Then through a flip of the coin they were categorized as guards or prisoners. Then, on the day when the experiment began, the prisoners were arrested publicly, brought to the space where they’d be stripped, searched, given a gown, and a pantyhose cap. The guards wore uniforms resembling some B-movie highway patrol character, sunglasses included. What happened after has become common knowledge: the guards’ violent tendencies got quickly out of hand, leading the experiment to last six days instead of fourteen.


Phillip Zimbardo, the professor who came up with the idea and served as the fake prison’s superintendent, continues to use the experiment as proof of human nature. He has compared the study’s results to the reason why certain individuals commit suicide bombings or even the terrifying consequences of Abu Ghraib prison at the start of the US-Iraq war in 2004. And perhaps there is some truth to that. People are capable of horrible acts of violence if they believe they can get away with it or if they think that’s what they’re supposed to do.

However, more recent studies and perspectives have led other psychologists to believe that what happened during the Stanford Prison Experiment was more linked to social constructs than primal human nature. One of these instances is the BBC Prison Experiment, where the prisoners eventually controlled the entire situation. The biggest difference between both of these experiments was what the participants were told prior to going through with it. The guards from the BBC were asked to create a set of guidelines and that their job was to make the prison run smoothly. Those who were guards at Stanford often felt that they were being put on a stage where they had to take on a particular role. This is where the social construct comes in, if we believe that they acted out of what they thought was expected of them.


The truth is that the guidelines and norms that society places on us are often so heavy that we can’t help but follow them. Yet what actually sets people apart is that some choose to not follow these rules because in their heart and mind they know them to be wrong, or at least not for them. In an article for The New Yorker, Maria Konnikova talks about a study made surrounding the newspaper ad that was placed to attract participants. She describes how in 2007 Thomas Carnahan and Sam McFarland ran two separate ads on a newspaper. The first ad was identical to the original: “Male college students needed for a psychological study of prison life.” The second did not mention prison life at all. The researchers found that the individuals who showed up for one ad were not the same as those who came for the second.

This might imply that certain situations and jobs that could lead down this path of violence are sought by people who have a taste for the macabre. Despite what the narrative perpetuated by those who use the Stanford Experiment as proof of our brutality, it’s more likely that those who answer “the call to action” are not the everyman we’ve been told. This could also be translated into other horrific chapters of society. It’s not that we’re conditioned to violence, but that those who have sociopathic tendencies are attracted to particulars situations.


Seeing this through the scope of the social construct, it’s not hard to make the jump into torture, gender violence, and racism. Regardless of what the narrative or discourse tells us, we can’t help but wonder whether the “average” person we see on television committing a heinous act is actually that “random.” After all, we hardly hear about their personal history or trauma. We find out about their radicalization or out-of-the-blue behavior, but never about the underlying causes that may have led them to this point. Which I think is the problem with the entire debacle of the Stanford Prison Experiment.

This morbid addiction to seeing the worst in humanity, without even attempting to try and understand what’s behind, screams generalization and oversimplification. It’s a way for us to shrug our shoulders and say we’re doomed, or to point fingers and call certain people inherently evil. It also reveals the lengths we’re capable of going to in order to present a vision of what we believe through the guise of science. It’s manipulating a narrative, or history, that leads to creating and perpetuating stereotypes.


The controversy and intrigue that surrounds this experiment leaves us to wonder how many people feel pressured or allowed to behave a certain way that they know is wrong. More than a microcosm of humanity, it’s a terrifying example of what happens when our desire to please other’s expectations supersedes our conscience and understanding of what’s right and wrong.

Images are from the 2015 film, The Stanford Prison Experiment


The New Yorker
BBC Prison Study
Stanford Prison Experiment

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