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Based on Research by Phillip Zimbardo, Ph.D.. Psychology Science Minute written by Kyle Piecora, M.S.
Sometimes one cannot predict what will happen when setting up research. However, much can be learned from unexpected results. One such instance is the famous Stanford Prison Study conducted by Dr. Philip Zimbardo in 1971.
In order to study how the situation one is in affects how people act, Zimbardo created a mock prison and assigned 24 male students either to the role of prisoner or prison guard. The study took place in a realistic reconstruction of a prison. The interactions between the guards and prisoners were monitored. The researchers quickly found that the roles of the subjects had a far greater impact on their behavior than anticipated. The experiment, originally designed to last for 2 weeks, had to be stopped in 6 days due to hostile and abusive behaviors by the guards toward the prisoners who then became anxious, depressed and hopeless. What surprised the researchers and subjects alike was how quickly and intensely these new behaviors and identities emerged.
The findings from this study were used to explain the degrading treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib during the Iraqi War. What we know is that ordinary people, good people, can be readily transformed into mean and abusive guards by powerful situational forces.
Haney, C., Banks, W. C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1973). Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison. International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 1, 69-97.
Zimbardo, P. (2013). Stanford prison experiment. Retrieved from: http://www.prisonexp.org/psychology/41.