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From the website...

What happens when you put good people in an evil place? Does humanity win over evil, or does evil triumph? These are some of the questions we posed in this dramatic simulation of prison life conducted in the summer of 1971 at Stanford University.

How we went about testing these questions and what we found may astound you. Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended prematurely after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.

Wow. Read it.

I didn't really get what they expected to learn over, eg, studying a real prison. Indeed, it was hard to see how their prison differed from a real one.

The study aimed to place "control" subjects in a prison situation. They preselected the applicants to be as "normal" as possible. Criminals are (by definition, at least at the time) abnormal.

So the Jews in concentration camps were abnormal? Come on!

Yes. They were already separated from the mainstream population (already persecuted). And concentration camps are far, far, far different from the prison system tested in the experiment. Anyway, I invoke Godwin's Law, mostly because it doesn't matter. The study was already conducted, no changing that.

It seems to me that the Jews counted as "good people in an evil place". As did many of the guards. Eg part of the reason for shaving prisoners heads is to make it easier for the guards to treat them as less than human (the head-shaving being one of many points of similarity you seem to have overlooked). I think the study is only surprising if you think criminals, Jews and Nazis somehow belong to a different species. -- DaveHarris

In some ways the study is surprising, mostly because of the speed of the degradation, and the relative lack of authority by the experimenters. In Nazi Germany the Jews had been vilified for years by an internationally recognized government. Anti-Jewish sentiment was common (although not universal) in many nations. The Stanford study involved people from the same social groups, which eliminated some obvious sources of conflict.

On the other hand, after reading the site and some other related papers, the StanfordPrisonExperiment seems greatly flawed. First of all, advertising a study of a prison environment probably greatly affected the initial response. (An alternative would have been to advertise an "on-site 2 week experiment" and inform people when they applied. This would have raised more ethical issues, however.) The experimenters obviously interfered greatly in the study, and appeared to have no clear boundaries of who was involved. (The rules were apparently revised multiple times during the experiment.) Finally, the experimental results have not been confirmed with repeated or variant experiments. In my opinion, what happened at Stanford was an unfortunate event that involved some scientists, not an experiment. --CliffordAdams

Some related resources are at the About.com page on "Compliance/Conformity/Obedience" [1].

Also see the MilgramExperiment, which is "a simple experiment to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist". These kinds of experiments are now (generally) considered unethical due to the extreme stress they place on the participants.

See also NPR's All Things Considered [Prison Diaries].
What about the movie, The Green Mile, which seems to celebrate the ability of goodness to survive, even in a prison system...? -- Anon

I've not seen it.

Wiki:LarryNiven wrote, "Humans make poor slaves". I have wondered about this. Humans often make excellent slaves; for most of our history a lot of humans have been enslaved. The Stanford experiment shows how quickly we can be "broken".

On the other hand, history also seems to show the omnipresence of dissenters. Dissenters are something a totalitarian regime has to deal with, one way or another. I have wondered what makes dissenters. Did they have a different temperment before they entered the regime, or did the regime somehow create them? If you took a group of people, winnowed out the dissenters, and started again, would new dissenters appear? I think so. This has some current relevance to Wiki. It seems to me that in almost any community there a handful of people emerge who strive to set an ethical standard. The designer of an online community can rely on this.

In the Korean War they did something similar - in any group of prisoners there would be a couple of officers, whom they removed. They would then watch to see who would emerge as leaders, and then they would remove them too. They did this for a couple of cycles, and eventually new leaders stopped emerging. This made managing the prisoners much easier.


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