In 1971, when Zimbardo was a young psychology professor at Stanford University, he presided over a psychology experiment exploring what happened when normal students were immersed in two distinct roles: One group of students were to be prison guards -- in a makeshift prison set up in the basement of the psychology lab -- and the other group were to be prisoners.The same people who enable Bush, Cheney, Rice, and co the ability to create a barrel for evil in Iraq, enable their cronies to do for public schools what Abu Ghraib did for military prisons.
The experiment, peopled by well-adjusted, paid volunteers, was to last for two weeks. Within days, however, told they had to control the prison and provided with virtually no oversight by Zimbardo (in his role as prison superintendant), the bulk of the guards had begun engaging in startlingly sadistic, humiliation-based behavior -- dragging prisoners around naked and with bags over their heads, forcing them to do press ups while others sat on their backs, taking away their bedding, locking them up in dark closets overnight, even sexually humiliating them. Several of the inmates had experienced nervous collapse in response to their conditions of confinement. So extreme had those conditions become, that, at the urging of Christine Maslach -- herself a psychologist and also Zimbardo's future wife -- on day five the researchers decided to bring the project to a premature close.
Both groups, in turned out, had rapidly ceased to think of their identities as simply acting roles in a psychology experiment, and had internally absorbed the new power dynamics set in play in the basement. "Fight them! Resist violently! The time has come for violent revolution!" one brutalized, exhausted prisoner shouted out, his 1960s-politics seeping through into his new role. A guard reported enjoying "harassing the prisoners at 2.30am. It pleased my sadistic senses."
In a way, the guards' capacity to inflict pain wasn't a surprise. Nearly a decade earlier, trying to see whether the conditions of blind obedience that had allowed Nazi atrocities to occur could be replicated in democratic America, a Yale psychiatrist named Stanley Milgram had designed an experiment intended to measure how far people would go in electric-shocking others as part of a learning project. Panels of experts beforehand had predicted almost none of the volunteers would follow orders to shock people up to a top level of 450 volts. In the event, it turned out huge numbers of people, when following the orders of authority figures, would do precisely this. Orders, it turned out, in certain situations easily overrode moral qualms.
While Milgram and Zimbardo are often studied together in academic settings, Zimbardo's study is the one that has crossed over into the popular culture. The Stanford Prison Experiment is almost certainly the most well-known, oft-quoted psychology experiment ever conducted. The Pentagon has interrogators watch its grainy black and white video footage; a rock band is named after it; numerous films and documentaries have added to its iconic allure.
In essence, it recreated a Lord of the Flies scenario: Put good, intelligent people into a terrible situation in which the broader social and moral codes cease to apply, and the great majority of those good people will end up engaging in extraordinary acts of brutality. They will, quite simply, cease to respond as morally cognizant human beings.
Zimbardo has been haunted by the implications of his research for close to four decades. While he has given hundreds of interviews over the years, written numerous papers and articles about his findings, and set up one of the world's busiest websites to educate new generations of students on what happened in Stanford in 1971, he has always shied away from writing a book on the topic. It was, he sometimes claimed, simply too painful for him to re-immerse himself so as to be able to write a full-length book. And so, the meticulous notebooks he and the experimentees wrote in during that awful week were kept boxed away; the video footage and Ampex audio recordings reaped from bugs placed in "inmates" cells were released only in dribs and drabs; and the "debriefing" documents filled in by guards and prisoners in the wake of the project's conclusion were filed away for future use.
The sadistic dependency of public schools on high-stress testing is no less an invitation to the teaching profession to find their inner sadist than it is for prison guards.