In the 1970's an experiment was conducted in Stanford University where attendees were told that they were going to be part of a prison experiment. Volunteers were randomly selected from their groups to either take on the roles of "prisoner" or "prison guard" and were then observed over several days to see how it would play out.
The experimenters honestly didn't believe that anything would come of the Stanford prison experiment but what they witnessed and observed was horrifying. Guards let the power go to their heads and began berating the prisoners and humiliating them. Prisoners ended up feeling psychologically drained.
The experiment has long since been regarded as one of the most inhumane and cruel social experiments that has ever been conducted on human subjects. Even though everyone who was participating knew it was only a simulation and their torment would eventually end, it did not stop what was happening from being any more real.
If you were playing the role of a prisoner or a prison guard, do you think that you would let the power take control of you or make you feel as weak and helpless as many of these prisoners felt they were? Even though the events may be faked, the emotions and realities felt by many of these prisoners were absolutely legitimate.
Throughout the experiment, one prison guard in particular let the power flood his mind like no-one else. In fact, he became such a tyrant in the prison that many of the other guards were actually afraid to challenge his authority and simply went along with his reign of power against the prisoners. This is a classic example of “group mentality” at work.
In later interviews, this same prison guard confessed that he deliberately chose to take the role to the absolute extreme and intimidate the prisoners as much as humanely possible. He made it his goal to be as cruel as he could and humiliate everyone under his power.
There was only one instance of a prisoner who mentally broke down so far that they were unable to handle the harsh realities of their living conditions and was escorted out of the Stanford Prison Experiment. This prisoner returned to their normal lives and a new recruit was brought in from the outside.
This newcomer was absolutely baffled by what was happening within the fake prison. They were brought in with an understanding that this was just a simulation but that individual was immediately warned by the fellow inmates about what they could expect to happen now that they were part of it. The guards were cruel and it was best to go along with whatever was happening if they were to survive.
Fortunately, the experiment was shut down prior to the actual day it was supposed to end.
Reading about it is one thing but it was another thing altogether to live through it, something which thankfully none of us will have to do. Watch the Stanford Prison Experiment as it happened and see for yourself why it was so highly controversial.
UPDATE: A former prison guard from the Stanford Prison Experiment has conducted an Ask Me Anything (AMA) on Reddit. Click here to read.