Published in BuzzFeed News, 2018
The Stanford Prison Experiment is arguably one of the most famous experiments in modern psychology and has been used as a demonstration of how people rapidly conform to their roles in extraordinary circumstances and perform acts that would be branded as "evil" in average contexts.
The experiment has become part of the fabric of modern psychology and has been taught routinely to first-year psychology students around the world, making an appearance in the great majority of social psychology textbooks.
However, its legitimacy is now being openly debated by a panel of international psychology experts including professor Philip Zimbardo, the researcher from Stanford University who designed and conducted the experiment.
So, what was the Stanford Prison Experiment?
The experiment was part of a trend in modern psychology to understand the emergence of violent and immoral human behaviour in different contexts in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust.
The experiment took place in the summer of 1971 using 24 male college student volunteers.
"Stanford County Prison" was created by boarding up and building cells in a section of the basement in the psychology department of Stanford University.
The participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups — guards or prisoners.
The prisoners were referred to by ID numbers rather than their names by the guards and fellow prisoners.
Zimbardo and his co-authors wrote a paper on the study, which began: "What happens when you put good people in an evil place? Does humanity win over evil, or does evil triumph? These are some of the questions we posed in this dramatic simulation of prison life".
The study began by "arresting" the prisoners and taking them from their homes in a police car. The prisoners were then searched, stripped naked and deloused with a spray.
Over the course of six days at the Stanford County Prison psychological and physical abuse was committed by the guards against the prisoners.
The study was intended to span a fortnight but was cut off early by legal complaints and the objections of a PhD student who was brought in to interview the participants.
The guards inflicted punishments such as menial tasks, exercising (jumping jacks and push-ups), solitary confinement, sleep deprivation and cleaning toilets with their bare hands.
One of the prisoners (#8612), Douglas Korpi, a 22-year-old Berkeley graduate, began to exhibit uncontrollable crying and rage 36 hours into the experiment, described by Zimbardo as "acute emotional disturbance".