Simulated Prison in '71 Showed a Fine Line
Between `Normal' and 'Monster'
By John Schwartz
May 6, 2004
In 1971 researchers at Stanford University created a simulated prison in the
basement of the campus psychology building. They randomly assigned 24
students to be either prison guards or prisoners for two weeks.
Within days the "guards" had become swaggering and sadistic, to the point of
placing bags over the prisoners' heads, forcing them to strip naked and
encouraging them to perform sexual acts.
The landmark Stanford experiment and studies like it give insight into how
ordinary people can, under the right circumstances, do horrible things -
including the mistreatment of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
What is the distance between "normal" and "monster"? Can anyone become a
Such questions, explored over the decades by philosophers and social
scientists, come up anew whenever shocking cases of abuse burst upon the
national consciousness, whether in the interrogation room, the police
station or the high school locker room.
Hannah Arendt coined the phrase "banality of evil" to describe the very
averageness of the Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann. Social psychologists pursued
the question more systematically, conducting experiments that demonstrated
the power of situations to determine human behavior.
Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo, a leader of the Stanford prison study, said that
while the rest of the world was shocked by the images from Iraq, "I was not
surprised that it happened."
"I have exact, parallel pictures of prisoners with bags over their heads,"
from the 1971 study, he said.
At one point, he said, the guards in the fake prison ordered their prisoners
to strip and used a rudimentary sex joke to humiliate them.
Professor Zimbardo ended the experiment the next day, more than a week
earlier than planned.
Prisons, where the balance of power is so unequal, tend to be brutal and
abusive places unless great effort is made to control the guards' base
impulses, he said. At Stanford and in Iraq, he added: "It's not that we put
bad apples in a good barrel. We put good apples in a bad barrel. The barrel
corrupts anything that it touches."
To the extent that the Abu Ghraib guards acted, as some have said, at the
request of intelligence officers, other studies, performed 40 years ago by
Dr. Stanley Milgram, then a psychology professor at Yale, can also offer
some explanation, researchers said. In a series of experiments, he told test
subjects that they were taking part in a study about teaching through
The subjects were instructed by a researcher in a white lab coat to deliver
electric shocks to another participant, the "student."
Every time the student gave an incorrect answer to a question, the subject
was ordered to deliver a shock. The shocks started small but became
progressively stronger at the researcher's insistence, with labels on the
machine indicating jolts of increasing intensity - up to a whopping 450
The shock machine was a cleverly designed fake, though, and the victims were
actors who moaned and wailed. But to the test subjects the experience was
all too real.
Most showed anguish as they carried out the instructions. A stunning 65
percent of those taking part obeyed the commands to administer the electric
shocks all the way up to the last, potentially lethal switch, marked "XXX."
Dr. Charles B. Strozier, director of the Center on Terrorism and Public
Safety at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said the prison
guards in Iraq might feel that the emotions of war and the threat of
terrorism gave them permission to dehumanize the prisoners.
"There has been a serious, siesmic change in attitude after 9/11 in the
country in its attitude about torture," Dr. Strozier said, a shift that is
evident in polling and in public debate. In the minds of many Americans, he
said, "it's O.K. to torture now, to get information that will save us from
Craig W. Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California,
Santa Cruz, who was one of the lead researchers in the Stanford experiment,
says prison abuses can be prevented by regular training and discipline,
along with outside monitoring.
Without outsiders watching, Professor Haney said, "what's regarded as
appropriate treatment can shift over time," so "they don't realize how badly
"If anything," he said, "the smiling faces in those pictures suggest a total
loss of perspective, a drift in the standard of humane treatment."
Experiments like those at Stanford and Yale are no longer done, in part
because researchers have decided that they involved so much deception and
such high levels of stress - four of the Stanford prisoners suffered
emotional breakdowns - that the experiments are unethical.
You can read more on the experiment and follow-ups at