The New Yorker has one of the best articles I’ve ever read on the Stanford prison experiment – the notorious and mythologised study that probably doesn’t tell us that we ‘all have the potential to be monsters’.
It’s a study that’s often taught as one of the cornerstones of psychology and like many foundational stories, it has come to serve a purpose beyond what we can confidently conclude from it.
Was the study about our individual fallibility, or about broken institutions? Were its findings about prisons, specifically, or about life in general? What did the Stanford Prison Experiment really show?
The appeal of the experiment has a lot to do with its apparently simple setup: prisoners, guards, a fake jail, and some ground rules. But, in reality, the Stanford County Prison was a heavily manipulated environment, and the guards and prisoners acted in ways that were largely predetermined by how their roles were presented. To understand the meaning of the experiment, you have to understand that it wasn’t a blank slate; from the start, its goal was to evoke the experience of working and living in a brutal jail.
It’s a great piece that I can probably do little to add to here, so you’re best off reading it in full.
Link to The Real Lesson of the Stanford Prison Experiment.