“Male college students needed for psychological study of prison life. $15 per day for 1-2 weeks.” Led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo, the Stanford Prison Experiment lasted less than a week, but has lived on as one of the most notorious research projects ever carried out by the University. 24 young men were randomly assigned to be either prisoners or guards in a makeshift prison in the basement of Stanford’s Jordan Hall. Within a few days, the “prisoners” were enduring emotionally crippling abuse and humiliation at the hands of their “guards” – sleep deprivation, being stripped naked, taunted and marched in line with bags over their hands, their ankles shackled. One prisoner simulated madness in order to be released; another staged a very real hunger strike and was thrown into solitary confinement. As the experiment descended into chaos, Zimbardo found himself taking on the role of prison warden – blurring his own role as a researcher. After six days the experiment was ended, and its legacy has been controversial. Was it a revealing – if flawed – study on the nature of good and evil? Were its findings prescient of later abuses at prisons such as Abu Ghraib? What social, physical and environmental circumstances lead otherwise good people to treat others inhumanely? And how far should researchers go to find out?
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