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"Things fall apart,"
part three

May 20, 2004


The Stanford Prison Experiment


In 1971, a psychology professor at Stanford began what eventually became notorious as the "Stanford Prison Experiment." He took a volunteer group of young male university students, randomly divided them into "prisoners" and "guards," and set up a mock prison in a building on campus for what was supposed to be a two-week period.

The results were astonishing. The "guards," of course, knew that they and the "prisoners" were all part of an experiment. Nevertheless, most of the "guards" soon began to mistreat their charges: threatening them, harassing them, yelling at them, making them do calisthenics, and so on. The situation even affected the psychologists directing the experiment: they also began to regard the "prisoners" as criminals. When they heard that the "prisoners" were planning to escape, they actually tried to have them installed in a real jail to prevent it!

Some of the "prisoners" had to be released within a few days because they broke down under the strain. The other "prisoners" suffered anomie and depression, which worsened every day. The experiment was terminated after only five days, when an outsider observed the experiment and became outraged at their treatment.

The implications of the experiment are very disquieting. Ordinary people are not only likely to become tyrants when given power over others but are also liable to cease regarding those under them as people at all, seeing them instead as objects to be manipulated and mistreated at will. The effect on the victims is devastating.

Even so, it should be pointed out that the "guards" did not kill any "prisoners," nor did they actually torture them or abuse them sexually.

The official Stanford Prison Experiment Website is at www.prisonexp.org/index.html.

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