Story Questions Conclusions of ‘Seminal’ Prisoner Abuse Study

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The conclusions drawn from a 1971 role-playing study of prison psychology, considered a seminal experiment into the nature of evil, are being called into question, reports the Los Angeles Times. The government-funded study at Stanford University made a psychology star of Philip Zimbardo, the professor who led the research. He concluded there was something inherent in the social structure of prison – powerful guards and powerless inmates – that could make ordinary people do evil things. The study is mentioned in nearly every introductory psychology and sociology textbook, and the documentary Zimbardo made about the experiment is shown in classes across the country.

When the photos of grinning U.S. soldiers, posing with stacks of naked Iraqi inmates at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, came to light, the lessons of the Stanford Prison Experiment were revived once again. Zimbardo has given dozens of interviews comparing Abu Ghraib to the prison in his experiment: the lack of training of the guards, the gradual escalation of abuse, the lack of accountability. But students who participated in the role-playing 33 years ago tell the Times that Zimbardo drew a number of questionable conclusions.


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