Reference to the Stanford Prison Experiment: Finding Hope in Knowing the Capacity of Evil
From Süddeutsche Zeitung (April 16, 2007): selected article from The New York Times
Philip G. Zimbardo, a social psychologist and the past president of the American Psychological Association,
has made his reputation studying hoe people disguise the good and bad in themselves and under what
conditions either is expressed.
His Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971, known as the S.P.E. in social science textbooks, showed how
anonymity, conformity and boredom can be used to induce sadistic behavior in otherwise wholesome students.
More recently, Dr. Zimbardo, 74, has been studying how policy decisions and individual choices led to abuse at the
Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The road that took him from Stanford to Abu Ghraib is described in his new book,
"The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil".
Q. For those who never studied it in their freshman psychology class, can you describe the Stanford Prison
A. In the summer of 1971, we set up a mock prison on the Stanford University campus. We took 23 volunteers and
randomly divided them into two groups. These were normal young men, students. We asked them to act as
'prisoners' and 'guards' might in a prison environment. The experiment was to run for two weeks.
By the end of the first day, nothing much was happening. But on the second day, there was a prisoner rebellion.
The guards came to me. "What do we do?"
"It's your prison," I said, warning them against physical violence.The guards then quickly moved to
psychological punishment, though there was physical abuse, too.
In the ensuing days, the guards became ever more sadistic, denying the prisoners food, water and sleep,
shooting them with fire extinguisher spray, throwing their blankets into dirt, stripping them naked and dragging
rebels across the yard.
How bad did it get? The guards ordered the prisoners to simulate sodomy. Why? Because the guards were bored. Boredom
is a powerful motive for evil. I have no idea how much worse things might have gotten.
Q. What was your reaction when you first saw those photographs from Abu Ghraib?
A. I was shocked. But not surprised.
What particularly bothered me was that the Pentagon blamed the whole thing on a "few bad apples". I knew from our experiment,
if you put good apples into a bad situation, you'll get bad apples. That was why I was willing to be an expert
witness for Sergeant Chip Frederick, who was ultimately sentenced to eight years for his role at Abu Ghraib.
Frederick was the army reservist who was put in charge of the night shift at Tier1A, where detainees were abused.
Frederick said, up front, "What I did was wrong, and I don't understand why I did it."
Q. Do you understand?
A. Yeah. The situation totally corrupted him. When his reserve unit was first assigned to guard Abu Ghraib,
Frederick was exactly like one of our nice young men in the S.P.E. Three months later, he was exactly like one of
our worst guards.
Q. You keep using this phrase "the situation" to describe the underlying cause of wrongdoing. What do you mean?
A. The human behavior is more influenced by things outside of us than inside. The "situation" is the
external environment. The inner environment is genes, moral history, religious training. There are times when external
circumstances can overwhelm us, and we do things we never thought. If you're not aware that this can happen, you can be
seduced by evil. we need inoculations against our own potential for evil. We have to acknowledge it. Then we can
1. Do you think you could be corrupted by a bad situation and act evil?
2. Can you think of situations like that of Abu Ghraib where people have acted similarly?