As a true crime buff I’ve been aware of the Stanford Prison Experiment for a few years now.
I knew it happened in the 1970s, I knew it involved a bunch of college students signing up to take part in a “simulated” prison experiment, and I knew that it was called off after just six days because it got so out of hand.
But I also felt very safe in the knowledge that I would hopefully never be in that situation and – if I ever was – I would never act like that.
That was until I watched the movie The Stanford Prison Experiment on Netflix this week.
The 2015 movie closely follows the story of the real-life 1971 simulation study on the psychology of imprisonment conducted by Professor Philip G. Zimbardo at Stanford University in the United States.
The study sought to find out what really happens when you put good people in an evil place. Does humanity win over evil or does evil ultimately triumph?
The short answer? Evil triumphs and we’re all capable of extreme cruelty in the right circumstances.
In the movie, as true to the real-life experiment, Professor Philip G. Zimbardo and his colleagues choose who will be the prisoners and who will be the prison guards with a simple flip of a coin.
None of the young men who took part in the experiment, and who were paid $15 a day for their participation, showed a predisposition for inflicting cruelty on others. And they all went into this experiment under the proviso that no participant could physically harm another.
As the experiment begins all of the participants are nervous, they laugh uncomfortably and struggle to step into their designated roles of prisoner and prison guard.
The prison guards process the prisoners and assign them to their three-person cells, which are simply offices at Stanford University which have been converted into the makeshift prison cells, containing three trundle beds and very little else.
They make them strip off their clothes and then they put them in a dress with a nylon cap over their hair to "feminise" them.
The prisoners then sit down to a simple meal of baked beans and bread.
At this point the relationship between the prison guards and the prisoners is still pretty amicable, they're just testing the waters.
But within a few hours they seem more comfortable in their new roles - especially the prison guards. When a prisoner asks for a cigarette at dinner time, the most dominant prison guard denies his request, firmly putting him in his place as an inmate.
The power imbalance becomes more and more obvious and the prisoners genuinely begin to fear for their safety.
When one prison guard oversteps the line, a prisoner grabs him by the throat. The prison guard then punches the prisoner and puts him in the isolation cell, which was formally a supply cupboard at the university.
This is when the prisoners begin to worry that this experiment could be a lot more real than they originally thought.
As the movie progresses the prison guards continue to push the boundaries, to inflict greater acts of cruelty and humiliation on their prisoners to see just how far they can go.
The prisoners begin to break. At this point they truly begin to believe they're inmates in a prison, that they have no power in this situation and that they have no means of escaping.
Over the next few days a couple of the prisoners are let go or "paroled" as Zimbardo and his assistants begin to worry about their mental health.
But at no point do they considered stopping the experiment.
On the sixth day, the prison erupts into chaos. The prison guards are becoming even more violent towards the prisoners. At one point they make the prisoners simulate sex to humiliate a conservative prisoner who had just admitted that he was a virgin.
This scene brings Zimbardo to tears. He bursts into the makeshift prison and announces that the experiment is over.
What happens next is probably the most shocking scene in the movie. Both the prisoners and prison guards do not initially understand what Zimbardo is trying to tell them. They're so entrenched in their role-playing, they so believe that they're in a real prison, they don't understand how they can all of a sudden be free.
This is why The Stanford Prison Experiment is one of the most disturbing movies I've ever seen. While watching the movie you can't help but put yourself in the shoes of both the prison guards and the prisoners.
The movie made me question everything I thought I knew about myself. I wondered if I was in that position, would I be capable of such cruelty? Could I inflict harm on others just to stay in a position of power? And, after a while would I start to enjoy it?
The simple answer is yes. I probably would. As would everyone else I know.
The Stanford Prison Experiment proves that we're all capable of extreme cruelty in the right circumstances. That we could all quickly abandon our own principles and belief systems, and put our needs above others, if we thought that was our only means of survival.
And, ultimately, it proves that we might not know ourselves as well as we think.
You can watch The Stanford Prison Experiment on Netflix now.
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