In the summer of 1971, nine college-age men with no criminal records were arrested on charges of armed robbery and imprisoned in Palo Alto County Jail. Their crime? Signing up for a study on the psychological effects of prison life, conducted by Professor Zimbardo of Stanford University.
Nine other volunteers (also college-age men with no criminal records) were involved in the study, on the other side of the bars, as guards. They were assigned in threes to work eight-hour shifts as guards for the makeshift Palo Alto County Jail (actually in the basement of the Psychology building at Stanford).
The website I linked to in the first paragraph is Dr. Zimbardo's own website about the experiment, and I'd encourage you to take a look at the slideshow about the experiment.
The experiment was slated to run for two weeks, but it was halted prematurely after only six days, because of the horrifying transformation of the "prisoners" into subhuman monsters or psychological basketcases, the "guards" into brutal authoritarians, and Zimbardo himself into prison administrator! Basically here's what happened: The situation into which each participant was placed transformed him into filling that role, despite his lack of criminal record, authoritarian credentials, or prison administrator experience. Zimbardo was particularly horrified by how even he had been changed, going from research psychologist to prison superintendent. At one point, when he heard a rumor that the prisoners were planning an escape, instead of "record[ing] the pattern of rumor transmission and prepar[ing] to observe the impending escape," he took steps to foil the escape![*]
Another seminal experiment in social psychology was conducted by Stanley Milgram at Yale University. After World War II, Milgram wondered what drove Nazi war criminals such as Adolf Eichmann to perform such cruel acts. So he formulated some experiments to answer the following questions: "Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?"
The Milgram experiment "measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience." Participants were told by the supervising scientist that the experiment was testing the effect of punishment on learning. They were to be the "teacher," using electric shocks to teach another participant (actually a confederate), the "learner," some sets of words. The teacher and learner were placed in separate rooms where they could communicate but couldn't see each other. If the learner got the words wrong, the teacher was to shock them, and the voltage went up after each wrong answer. The teacher was given a reference shock of 45 V before the learning experiment began, so that he/she could know what the learner was experiencing.
In reality, the learner in the other room experienced no shocks. But he knew the voltage of the shocks being administered by the teacher, and acted accordingly, screaming, rapping against the wall, and when the voltage exceeded a certain threshold, no response to the question and no further complaints.
If at that point the teacher wished to stop, the supervising scientist told him/her to continue, using verbal prods of increasing pressure with each protest. The experiment stopped after the teacher still wished to stop after four verbal prods, or after the teacher had given the maximum 450-volt shock.
How many people administered the 450-volt shock? Surely only the most psychotic people would be cruel enough to do such a thing to a suffering human being! In fact, 65% of the forty subjects of the first experiment administered that 450-volt shock, although most were uncomfortable or hesitant to do so. But with the prodding of the supervising scientist, they administered the shock even though it clearly conflicted with their conscience. Interestingly, while many offered to return the check they were receiving for participation in exchange for quitting the experiment, no one demanded that the experiment as a whole be stopped.
These experiments show that good people can be placed in situations where they will perform evil acts. But I think there are a lot more interesting conclusions that can be reached from these experiments, and I will talk about them in my next post.