Forty years ago researchers at Stanford University conducted a controversial experiment, creating a fake jail, using volunteers to act as prisoners and guards: The Stanford Prison Experiment. Less than halfway through, the situation got out of hand, as the jailed volunteers, reacting to abuse from the volunteer guards, began to revolt and crack. The researchers let the situation deteriorate for six days until one finally spoke out. For the anniversary of the experiment, Romesh Ratnesar interviewed some of the participants for Stanford Magazine, giving us insight into what kept things running, even as things completely devolved.
Phil Zimbardo Superintendent: In Denial A professor in Stanford’s psychology department, Zimbardo acted the part of superintendent, overseeing the prison's authority. At the beginning of the experiment, the participants didn't take to their parts, "After the end of the first day, I said, 'There's nothing here. Nothing's happening.' The guards had this anti-authority mentality. They felt awkward in their uniforms. They didn't get into the guard mentality until the prisoners started to revolt," explains Zimbardo. While the guards transformed into brutal figures and the prisoners into victims, this mentality didn't change for Zimbardo, "Throughout the experiment, there was this conspiracy of denial—everyone involved was in effect denying that this was an experiment and agreeing that this is a prison run by psychologists."