In 1971, some brainiacs over at Stanford University decided it’d be totally sweet to stick some random people in a prison and see what happens. Apparently, they wanted to see the psychological effects of being a prisoner or a prison guard.
So they wrote up an ad in the local paper, tested 70 applicants, and ended up choosing the 24 most psychologically stable and healthy college students. As you’ll see shortly, the best humanity has to offer is actually really, really crappy.
The 24 students were arbitrarily split into two groups, guards and prisoners; it’s important to remember that when the students entered the experiment, they were all equal. And not subjecting each other to cruel discipline like making people clean toilets with their bare hands. Seriously.
So, some time after signing up for the experiment (and probably signing pages and pages of liability waivers), those deemed prisoners were visited at their homes by a policeman, read their legal rights, handcuffed, and taken to a police station. Blindfolded, and probably kind of surprised, the prisoners were then driven to the testing site, the “Stanford County Jail.”
Fast forward past the stripping, the issuing of uniforms, and the tying a chain around each prisoner’s foot, and we’re at the beginning of the two-week simulation.
How long do you think it took before stuff went wild? It took… wait for it… one day. One day, before everyone went bat-shit crazy. On the morning of the second day, the prisoners decided to stage a strike and barricade themselves inside their cells. To which the guards responded by spraying everyone in the cells with a fire extinguisher, breaking into the rooms, and harassing the hell out of everyone.
After that, the whole experiment shot into a downward spiral faster than a hooker gets STDs. Guards forced prisoners to sleep naked on concrete, used physical abuse as a means of punishment, and even prohibited the prisoners from going to the bathroom. And keep in mind, this was a bunch of Vietnam-era hippie college students:
Even more importantly, the prisoners had no legal reason to endure the humiliation of smelling like piss (literally) or any of the other degradation; they all could have just walked out at any moment. But apparently, they had by then “internalized” their roles and actually thought all of it was real.
Well, one guy did start screaming and ranting within 36 hours, but it took the guards and prison superintendent (who was actually the leader of the whole experiment), a while to realize that he wasn’t just screwing with them. And as for the other prisoners, instead of simply asking to leave, they began hatching a mass escape plot. As in, what they do in real prisons. Not in a two-week psychological experiment. Holy shit, this was intense.
On the other hand, there were the guards and the superintendent (like I said, the designer of the experiment). Rather than observing how this prisoner escape would take place and making psychological observations (you know, what he was paid to do), he decided to hold a meeting to discuss and enhance the security of the prison. In other words, the bastard forgot that it was an experiment. That he made.
One of his colleagues even reminded him that it was a simulation by asking, “What’s the independent variable?” But by that point, the superintendent was enjoying his God-role a little bit much, and just got pissed off.
So about four or five days into the experiment, the prisoners had an opportunity at parole. Interestingly enough, when asked whether they would give up the money they’d earned in the experiment to be freed — they had all been promised $15 a day — most of them said yes… again, completely forgetting that they could have just walked out whenever they wanted to with the promised money.
Eventually, the superintendent decided to end the experiment prematurely… in fact, he ended it 8 days earlier than the planned 14 days. One reason was that some of the guards had become increasingly sadistic during the night, when they thought no one could see them; their sexual and physical degradation just kept going.
The other reason was that, after about 50 outsiders had witnessed parts of the experiment, someone finally had an objection, and it was made clear that maybe this wasn’t such a brilliant idea.
When it was announced that the experiment was over early, most of the guards were kinda bummed out. And it’s not really funny that these people, who were chosen because they were healthy and normal, were upset about not being able to make other people touch their shit anymore. So instead of a witty comment, here’s a picture of a guy with a windmill in his beard:
I guess the moral of the story is, the next time your professor, boss or any other authority figure is being an asshole, just remember that you’d do it too. Oh, and for more on the psychology of assholes, check out the Dunning-Kruger effect.