How perhaps the most disturbing experiment ever devised turned regular people into monsters.
In October 2004, U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Ivan “Chip” Frederick was facing some hard time. He had been one of the accused in the notorious torture scandal that erupted in March of that year from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, and his court-martial saw disturbing details aired about prisoner abuse, sleep deprivation, and sexual humiliation.
One of the witnesses that Frederick called to defend him — and arguably one of the reasons he only got eight years for his crimes — was Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who argued that Frederick’s actions weren’t necessarily a reflection on his character, but were instead a reaction to the environment that the higher-ups had allowed to develop in Abu Ghraib.
Zimbardo explained that, given the right set of circumstances, almost anyone could be induced to do some of the things of which Frederick stood accused: beat naked prisoners, defile their religious items, and force them to masturbate with hoods over their heads.
Frederick’s actions, Zimbardo argued, were the predictable outcome of his assignment, rather than the isolated acts of a “bad apple,” which had been the Army’s approach to shifting blame onto certain individuals.
At the court-martial, Zimbardo was able to speak with a certain expertise on the subject of prisoner abuse because he had once participated in it himself.
For six days, between August 14 and 20, 1971, he had been the “warden” of a mock prison in the basement of Stanford University’s Jordan Hall. In an effort to better understand what drove the interactions of prisoners and their guards — funded by a grant from the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps — Zimbardo devised a psychological experiment that saw two-dozen otherwise normal young men randomly assigned the role of either prisoner or guard for what was intended to be a two-week role-playing exercise.
Under Zimbardo’s watch, the Stanford prison experiment turned into a struggle between suffering prisoners and the manipulative, sadistic guards who enjoyed torturing them.
The results were written up and widely circulated, making Zimbardo famous throughout his profession, and revealing something very disturbing about how little it sometimes takes to turn people into monsters.