Social Psychology

When Good People Do Bad Things


For years, the Stanford Prison Study has been used to tout the idea that putting any individual in a position of absolute control brings out the worst in them (and in a more general sense, that people conform to the roles they’re placed in).


An article appearing in Scientific American (Rethinking the Infamous Stanford Prison Experiment) includes new information leading researchers to believe that the original study actually yielded highly inconclusive results and that the subjects in the study were told how to act by the researchers.

The Stanford Prison Study in a Nutshell

Researchers from Stanford University’s psychology department “arrested” a group of random young men in the summer of 1971. A coin was flipped and the result determined whether members of the group would be guards or prisoners. A 35-foot-long section of the psychology department basement was transformed into a “prison” and  “guards” were given wooden batons, official-looking uniforms,  mirrored sunglasses, and the study began. Soon after the beginning of the experiment, the guards began displaying remarkably cruel behavior toward the inmates; sadistic, even. Physical abuse, unsanitary conditions, and humiliating/demoralizing tactics were used to dehumanize the “prisoners”.

The study was halted earlier than planned because of the guards’ hostile behavior, and the results were published: people conform to the roles in which they’re placed. Those in a position of power over others can become cruel, compassionless, and even sadistic.

Problems With the Stanford Study’s Conclusion

The results of the Stanford study have been widely published, cited, and referenced in lectures, textbooks, films, and more. But the degree to which the published results reflected the accuracy of the study is now being called into question; more information about the study, including audio recordings of the way the researchers spoke to the guards, was recently carefully scrutinized. In these recordings, researchers are heard speaking to guards using extensive “us-them” vocabulary, essentially pitting the researchers and the guards against the inmates. Guards were encouraged to adopt an attitude of superiority and heavy-handedness. Researchers told one guard who had been reluctant to act with cruelty along with his peers that all guards needed to be known as “tough guards,” and encouraged him to “lend a hand.”

By using manipulative tactics to influence the guards’ emotions and attitudes on the study, researchers seem to have provoked the very results they expected: open hostility and cruelty from those in positions of power, and fearful, violent, rebellious reactions from the prisoners. It’s an interesting testament to the dynamics of psychological roles and power positions, for sure–but perhaps not the same testament that’s been widely accepted for so long.

Reaction from Zimbardo

Lead researcher Philip Zimbardo has tried to address these concerns. The video below begins around 7 1/2 minutes into the video where you hear him address the critiques of the study.

The key points of his response are:

  1. This was 1971- a time when police were breaking up riots against the Vietnam war and as a result, college students didn’t really want to be police or guards and they hated their military uniforms. Thus, they needed a little encouragement to act in the role.
  2. In the beginning of the study very little happened between the “guards” and “prisoners” and some weren’t taking the study seriously.
  3. It’s true that one of the researchers told one “guard” on one shift to be tough, but, Zimbardo believes, telling only one guard to be tough doesn’t explain the abusive actions all the guards eventually took part in.

The Stanford study researchers have published this page in which they respond to the each criticism made about the Stanford study. They also published this consensus statement in an attempt to clarify their position on these criticisms.

It’s easy to see why there’s a lot of controversy around this study. It’s scary to think that ordinary people might do awful things when they are put into a role of authority. The value of the criticisms of this study might be that this doesn’t occur as easily as we used to think.



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    May 20, 2020

    I am extremely interested by this experiment. I am shocked that it was allowed to go ahead seeing as many people would see it as human rights being abused. However, it could be argued that what happened to the college students that played prisoners was their own fault seeing as they signed up to the experiment meaning that it was voluntary. I learnt that it took place in the middle of the Vietnam war in 1971, at a time when police officers and people from the army were hated, by college students in particular. I feel as though this experiment was not particularly ethical, but possibly needed seeing as it proves that individuals are capable of changing their behaviors dramatically due to something as simple as a change in role.

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    kayla and josie

    May 20, 2020

    the Stanford prison study used ordinary people to make the guards and inmates of a prison. in this study the guards showed cruel behaviour towards the inmates, which showed how people can just change the behaviour due to a role. as one guard started to show abusive behaviour the other guards joined in because of influence. I think this study shows how good people can end up doing bad things because of their position and it can influence other people to do the wrong thing. power plays a part as this is what influences them.

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    Hollie Satchell

    May 20, 2020

    I think the Stanford Prison Study was wrong, but somewhat necessary. It revealed how regular people would behave if given enough power and I think it was really interesting to see how they behaved. A few months ago I did my own research into this study and found that almost all of the inmates actually believed that they were in prison for a reason – they had all totally forgotten that it was fake. This was all but one volunteer, who was added to the study late, and would not conform to the roles given. There was even a case of one of the volunteers going mad in isolation, they became so insane that they had to be taken out of the study. When the researcher tried to explain to him that it was all fake, the volunteer could not comprehend what he was saying. Eventually, the investigation had to end because the wife of the head researcher found out about the awful conditions the men were living in, and demanded the study to end. It’s fascinating to see what the human mind will do when forced into a situation like this (then again, the study was optional, and the volunteers could leave at any time, they had just forgotten that none of it was real), it’s as if all memory of the outside world was blocked. This study is one of the most interesting cases I’ve ever heard of. There is also evidence that after less than a week, the living conditions for the ‘criminals’ were really similar to the conditions that captured people’s lived in during World War Two. I believe the study was necessary because it’s important to see what will happen to humanity if people are given too much power (and in many places, this is unfortunately the case) when there are little to no rules put in place. It is also important because it shows how people with no experience should never have such power, it will easily go to their heads and they will forget about all other aspects of life. Then again, this study is extremely controversial, and there are many unanswered questions about it: What if it were women and not men? What if the ratio of guards to criminals was different? What if the researchers weren’t physically involved in the study? (This, for some people, is the most controversial thing about the experiment. The researchers should have been behind the scenes and not in the investigation itself) I have yet to watch the film about this study, but after researching about it on two different occasions, I am more interested in it than ever.

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