Thursday, April 23, 2009

Stanford Prison Experiment

One of the most famous experiments in social psychology was conducted in a basement at Stanford University in 1971. Led by psychologist Philip Zimbardo, the study was meant to simulate the conditions normally faced by prison inmates and guards on a daily basis. Subjects were young men, but unlike "real" prisoners, they had no history of criminal or deviant behavior.

Randomly assigned to be either "guards" or "prisoners", the subjects quickly delved into their assigned roles. In fact, a little too much, it turned out. The study had to be prematurely cancelled as prisoners suffered psychological breakdowns and guards began to exibit increasingly dangerous and abusive behavior.

This experiment, which launched Zimbardo's career (despite concerns that the procedure went "too far" and violated ethical considerations), was a landmark study because it so obviously challenged the dispositional hypothesis as an explanation for the known bad behavior of prisoners and prison guards (e.g. it can't just be because they're "bad" people). "Good" people, placed in a "bad" situation, engage in bad behavior.

The website chronicles the now-famous experiment in a slide show with photos and video clips of the "prison" conditions and subject behavior. For extra credit, view/read the slide show and type answers to 3 of the discussion questions. You may pick which three you would like to respond to.

Also of interest, Zimbardo's recent book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (2007) not only describes the experiment, but includes some of Zimbardo's more personal reflections on possible ethical breaches. It also discusses how the Abu Ghraib prison scandal recalls, with haunting familiarity, how situations can create monstrous behavior. Check out Zimbardo's interview on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show (below), which is proof that even psychologists have street cred'. The book's companion website, is also worth a visit.

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