Nearly half-a-century ago, 24 male students hoping to make some holiday money turned up at Stanford University, California, for what would become one of the most notorious experiments in the field of human psychology.
The volunteers were recruited by Professor Philip Zimbardo and were randomly assigned to be either “prisoners” or “guards” in a mock prison that had been constructed in the basement of the Stanford psychology department.
Zimbardo’s experiment was supposed to last two weeks but was cut short just six days later, after a string of mental breakdowns, an outbreak of sadism and a hunger strike.
Now, the Stanford prison experiment's central conclusion, the so-called Lucifer effect — that when placed in toxic situations, good people will inevitably turn bad — has been challenged by a University of Queensland (UQ) researcher.
Professor Alex Haslam from the UQ School of Psychology says recently digitised tapes from the experiment call into question the study's original conclusions.
“The researchers in the Stanford prison experiment claim that it shows people’s willingness to oppress others by simply putting on a prison guard uniform,” he said.
“The new evidence shows that some guards actually resisted these roles and then were cajoled by the experimenters into enacting them.
“The experimenters actually engaged in ‘identity leadership’, in which they encouraged the guards to engage in toxic behaviour by trying to persuade them that this was necessary for the achievement of worthy group goals.”
Along with being a staple in psychology textbooks, the experiment has also been made into a documentary, Quiet Rage, and used as legal defence of human rights violations against detainees in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.
In Zimbardo’s briefing to the “guards” prior to the start of the study captured in the documentary, he says: “You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can create a notion of arbitrariness that their life is totally controlled by us, by the system, you, me – and they’ll have no privacy.
“They’ll have no freedom of action, they can do nothing, say nothing that we don’t permit. We’re going to take away their individuality in various ways. In general, what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness.”
Professor Haslam concluded that people do not mindlessly and helplessly succumb to brutality. Instead, he found that brutality occurs when people identify strongly with groups that have a brutal ideology.
Together with colleagues at the University of St Andrews and New York University, he sees the new interpretation of the infamous experiment as an opportunity to improve scientific theory.
“It is clear that prevailing explanations of what went on in the Stanford Experiment are not only inadequate, but fail to explain collective brutality in places like Abu Ghraib and Rwanda,” Professor Hallam said.
“Our analysis not only helps understand what really went on in the Stanford study, but also gives us a better handle on the dynamics of tyranny in the world at large.”