Have you ever wondered how you or a friend would react in a very difficult situation? So did psychologist Philip Zimbardo in 1971. Dr. Zimbardo and his team conducted a study at Stanford prison to find out how human behavior changed in stressful situations. In the cellar of a Stanford psychology building, Dr. Zimbardo’s team built a pseudo-prison and then chose 24 students as prisoners and guards. All were psychologically healthy and had no prior criminal histories. Prisoner-participants stayed for 24 hours and guard-participants had shifts of eight hours. Researchers observed all behavior via closed-circuit cameras.
The experiment, set to take place over two weeks, barely lasted six days. Guards became abusive toward the prisoners, and the psychological stress of the situation became too much for the prisoners. Allegedly, the guards made prisoners participate in “increasingly humiliating sexual activities,” as reported by Dr. Zimbardo in the American Scientist. He stopped the experiment, citing a potential for excessive harm—particularly for the prisoners.
Results of this study have been questioned over the years. However, the scientist and his team uncovered some important information. First, the experiment showed that social and institutional support structures affect how humans react under pressure. Further, the high levels authoritative behavior from guards over the prisoners demonstrated the main idea of cognitive dissonance, especially displaying how quickly the prisoners and guards acclimated to their new roles. Most importantly, the results showed that particular situations, instead of singular personalities, affected how the participants acted in that psychologically stressful situation. This experiment proved that the social environment strongly influenced in behavior, more so than personal character.
Right after the study, riots took place at the San Quentin and Attica prisons. Because of his findings, Dr. Zimbardo was asked to share his work with the United States Congress.
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