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  • Chegan SRM

What Happens When Good People Are Put in an Evil Place?

Updated: Aug 10, 2023

The Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted in 1971 by psychologist Philip Zimbardo, has gone down in history as one of the most famous and controversial psychological studies of all time. The experiment, which took place at Stanford University, involved 24 male college students who were randomly divided into two groups, guards and prisoners. While the guards were given a uniform and instructed to act as prison guards, the prisoners were dressed in smocks and given numbers as their identity.



The experiment was designed to explore the psychological effects of perceived power, focusing on how both the prisoners and the guards responded to their roles. The results of the experiment were shocking. The guards became overly authoritarian and adopted an aggressive attitude towards the prisoners. They were observed harassing prisoners, refusing to allow them to eat, and even making them clean toilets with their bare hands. The guards also developed a sense of solidarity and camaraderie, forming a “us vs. them” attitude. The prisoners, on the other hand, quickly became demoralized and some even suffered from depression, anxiety, fear, and feelings of helplessness. They experienced a loss of identity and a sense of dehumanization.


The results of the experiment showed that the environment of the prison, combined with the guards’ newfound sense of power, caused them to become overly oppressive and to take their roles too seriously. It also demonstrated the importance of power dynamics in creating psychological distress and how people can easily conform to the roles that are expected of them. The experiment was terminated after only six days due to the extreme emotional distress experienced by the participants.


Today, the Stanford Prison Experiment is widely used in classrooms and textbooks to demonstrate the power of authority and how quickly people can become desensitized to the suffering of others. It also serves as a reminder of the ethical considerations that must be taken when conducting psychological research.


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