The Great Legacy of Stanford

When most people think of Stanford they probably think of... I don't know, a fancy school or whatever? Well, when I think of Stanford, the next words that pop into my head are often "prison experiment."

Did you take psych in your undergrad? Then you probably are nodding your head with me. Or groaning inwardly at being reminded of your useless psychology undergrad degree*.

For the uninitiated: the Stanford Prison Experiment happened 40 years ago yesterday (prompting this celebratory post!) and is one of the more controversial studies in psychology's history, from before the days when we had strict ethics committees to make sure we didn't eff people up for life. Basically, they assigned 24 healthy young dudes to roles as prisoners or prison guards randomly, and converted a basement somewhere on campus into a makeshift prison. They were to be there for a week, and the goal was to see what would happen to people in these assigned roles.

Well, they canceled the mothah, because these guys got right out of hand. Within a day the guards were abusing the prisoners and the prisoners were getting all terrified and acting like victims, and NOBODY STOPPED IT. Even Zimbardo, the guy running it, got lost in his role as the prison warden and let the study continue for days after things got bad.

I love this study for two reasons, one of which is incredibly horrible of me:

1. While it is one of the studies that prompted all the stringent ethics policies researchers must now meet, it shows what kind of fascinating things we could find out about human nature when we don't worry about ethics. Of course the ethics we have now are a good thing, but there is a lot we will never know because of their existence. It appeals to the evil scientist in me that just wants to put people in various boxes and see what happens.

2. It allows me to be really pretentious in arguments and say things like "oh, you THINK things like personality, values, and ethics make you a good person, but really you just need to become a prison guard for a couple of days and you'll turn into a monster. IT'S BEEN PROVEN BY SCIENCE."

So, happy 40th, Stanford Prison Experiment. You are awesome. In a really unethical way.

*Fun Fact: Doing a double major in theatre and psychology made my parents feel better about the fact that I was studying something (theatre) that would never give me gainful employment. Little did we all know, a psych undergrad degree is probably MORE useless than a theatre undergrad degree! Life!

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