In 1971, in a basement in Stanford University, psychologist Philip Zimbardo led what is now considered to be one of the most controversial scientific experiments ever conducted.
The study was funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, and Zimbardo, a Stanford University expert on the psychology of evil, was the perfect candidate to take helm of the research. He enlisted several Stanford undergrads and assigned them roles, either as “prison guards” or as “inmates,” for a study that investigated the dynamics of the violent prison conditions common in the United States. Conducted in the basement of the university’s psychology department, Zimbardo and his team aimed to answer a simple question: Why do good people do bad things?
The study, which was originally planned to run for two weeks, ended after just six days due to the emotional trauma the students — “guards” and “inmates” alike — experienced. The study managed to attract international media attention, making Zimbardo a household name at the time. Today, the Stanford Prison Experiment remains to be one of the most controversial studies ever conducted.
This week, one of the former “guards” is speaking out. In a recent Reddit AMA thread, John Mark, one of the student guards in Dr. Zimbardo’s experiment, reveals his unique experiences undergoing through one of history’s most talked-about psychological experiments. Here are some of the most intriguing questions asked.
Redditor ronniemexico asked, “Was there a ‘mob mentality’ with the guards? Was it a situation where there were a few that were there to be altruistic, or more humane, that eventually evolved into a sadistic display?”
John Mark answered, “I don’t think there was any mob mentality, as far as I know. I think everyone went in to it on their own terms. You have to realize we were all so young. We were barely 20. I hadn’t had many jobs at the time, so I took it seriously as a job. As far as I could tell, it did not evolve into a mob mentality, that was part of the myth. I talked about it in my first letter posted above.”
Redditor frajer asked, “Do you think any good came from the experience?”
Mark replied, “Honestly, I think it would have been better if it had never happened. It introduced a concept of innate human evil into accepted common wisdom that I don’t believe to be true and I especially don’t believe that experiment to be the proof of that.”
Redditor tmntnut asked, “Do you regret participating in the experiment? What insight if any did you gain from participating?”
Mark answered, “I don’t regret participating. Clearly, it was a landmark event, even if my personal belief is that the conclusions were distorted. My biggest regret is that I wasn’t a prisoner. My biggest regret as a guard was that I didn’t pass joints to the prisoners as I wanted to because I didn’t want to ruin the experiment. I didn’t realize at the time that drugs in prisons were common. I didn’t want to be the one to distort the whole experiment.”
[Image from Stanford/YouTube]