The experiment that went out of control

Philip Zimbardo is one of the most controversial figures in psychology, said Katie Kilkenny in Pacific Standard. In 1971, the Stanford professor conducted a now notorious psychological experiment that placed 24 student volunteers as prisoners and guards in a simulated prison. The experiment quickly spun out of control, as the student guards became increasingly sadistic toward their prisoners and Zimbardo—who acted as prison superintendent—was accused of subjecting his volunteers to psychological torture. Four decades on, Zimbardo stands by his study—if only because it taught the world that anyone can be seduced by evil under the right circumstances. “[We like to think] our personality is relatively fixed, we are who we are, that we are not influenced by things around us,” says Zimbardo, 82. “This study says no, that might be true sometimes, but other times when you’re put in an unfamiliar situation where you don’t have any guidelines or rules that contain who you are, you could be anything.” He insists we’ve all witnessed this phenomenon: “Somebody you know suddenly begins to change because they’ve been given a certain role or authority.” Zimbardo admits that he, too, was corrupted by his prison role. “I lost my sense of compassion,” he says. “I totally lost that.”

The Week Magazine, August 7, 2015