The Standford Experiment: the Lucifer effect

People in the picture could seem like a normal prison guard with his prisoner, even if mirror glasses and the paper bag over the head of the prisoner could give rise to some doubt.

Actually, they are two participants in one of the experiments that have made the history of psychology and not just of psychology: The Stanford Prison Experiment.

Promoted by prof. Zimbardo to investigate the behaviour of individuals defined exclusively by their own group, was held in 1971 at Stanford University during the period of class breaks.

Zimbardo created a realistic reproduction of the prison environment within the campus and after selecting 24 adult men – all healthy, well-balanced and of middle-class extraction – acculturated and devoid of any deviant behaviour, divided them into two groups.

The first group was the one of the detainees. They received the same uniform, the same cap and were chained on their ankles. The second was the one of the guards, who wore a uniform khaki, mirror glasses, and had a truncheon and handcuffs.

The detainees had precise rules to stick to and the guards had the task of making them comply. Obviously everyone knew that it was an experiment and that the roles they dropped were totally imaginary.

Yet it was only two days before the situation dramatically precipitated: the detainees began to protest for their condition, tear their shirts and lock themselves in the cells.

The guards who were already treating them with hardness started practicing even more fierce forms of physical and psychological violence against them. The prisoners were forced to sing screaming songs, defecate in buckets that could not drain, to clean the latrines with bare hands.

Zimbardo was forced to put an end to his experiment after an attempted escape by hard-pressed detainees, as participants began to show serious signs of dissociation from reality, psychological disorders, fragility and sadism as the case may be.

The experiment demonstrated in an incontrovertible way that to play an institutional role on the one hand deprives the individual of responsability, leading him to behave without those sensational brakes – fear, shame, pity – which in normal conditions regulate their actions.

On the other hand, following the rules of the institution to which it belongs, leads a subject to no longer have any behavioural autonomy but to blindly conform to the collective will of the group.

In short, the environment and institutions determine the behaviour of every single individual. To explain this phenomenon, Zimbardo will convey the term “Lucifer effect”.


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