When Good People Do Bad Things: Stanford prison, Abu Ghraib

The Stanford Prison Experiment

In 1971, Dr. Zimbardo placed newspaper ads to find normal, healthy, intelligent college students for a mock prison experiment at Stanford University in California. They flipped a coin to determine who would play the initial nine guards and nine prisoners for several weeks. They were paid $15 a day.

You won't believe what happened!


"That is disturbing," Dr. Phil notes.

Dr. Zimbardo agrees. "It was disturbing then, it's disturbing now when I look at it," he says.

Dr. Phil explains the college students were from all over the country, and within 36 hours the prison guards were cruel to the prisoners in what they knew was just an experiment.

"What happened is, over time, it became a prison run by psychologists, not by the state. After the second day, no one used the word experiment. It's really about roles," Dr. Zimbardo explains. "The dress makes a difference, how you look, but then there's also the group. Guards support each other, so when the guards started behaving cruelly, the other guards say, ‘Yeah, right on.' See, but all of us know what it means to be a guard is to have power over other people."

"What is it that takes a good kid and makes them all of a sudden become cruelly evil?" Dr. Phil asks.

"Most of the roles we play are good roles: you're a cheerleader, or you're a teacher. It's only when you play a certain role in a situation where the system puts pressure on you to use that role differently. So, you could be a good guard, or you could be a bad guard. When the system says, ‘These guys are dangerous prisoners,' which is what the guards began to think, then ‘We have to teach them a lesson.' Just as with the taser. So, it's really a fine line between good and evil. It's not a very clear boundary. The rest of the people in your group push you to be more and more extreme," Dr. Zimbardo says.

Dr. Zimbardo even noticed that the experiment started to change him as well. "Because I made the mistake of being not only the researcher, but I was the prison superintendent. And if you're the prison superintendent, your main concern is the guards and your institution, not the prisoners " the prisoners come and go. Same way if you were an administrator in a hospital. You care about the nurses more than the patients," he says.

[AD]"You became indifferent?" Dr. Phil asks.

"I became indifferent to the suffering of the prisoners," he says. "People began to treat me as if I was the prison superintendent, and I became that."

The prison experiment was supposed to last weeks, but it was shut down in six days because it got out of control.


To learn more about the Stanford Prison Experiment, click here.

Dr. Zimbardo was an expert witness in the defense of Staff Sergeant Ivan "Chip" Frederick, one of the prison guards at Abu Ghraib.

"In 2004, I was shocked, as most people were throughout the world, when we saw the release of a dozen pictures of American soldiers humiliating, torturing prisoners in Iraq in a prison called Abu Ghraib," Dr. Zimbardo explains. "These were military police humiliating prisoners, sexually abusing them. I wasn't surprised, because I had seen similar pictures in the Stanford prison experiment. The insurgency breaks out. Abu Ghraib is the interrogation center. Military police: They are now going to be the bad guys. One of the main motivations for evil is boredom. Guards get bored. ‘Let's get them naked and pile them in a pyramid. Nobody's ever done that, and let's take a picture of it.'

"The lawyer for one of the guards, Staff Sergeant ‘Chip' Frederick, contacted me. This is a super American kid, a profile of the ideal soldier. He's got nine metals and awards; his ratings were always excellent. My defense of Chip Frederick was until the moment he stepped into that basement in Abu Ghraib, he's ideal. And in a very short time he's there, he's now doing these terrible things, so here's a classic instance of the power of the situation," he says.

Dr. Phil asks, "Is what you're saying here is that any one of us put in that situation, under those circumstances and dynamics, where we believe these are the enemy, these are evil people, we believe we're doing the righteous work in the military in serving our country, could have been subject to doing exactly what these guards did?"

"I would say almost any one of us," Dr. Zimbardo says. "On the night shift, nine out of nine military police engage in those behaviors. Some did it all the time; some did it some of the time."

[AD]Dr. Zimbardo says that the abuse only happened on the night shift. "A lot of the pictures they took, they took as bragging rights, to say, ‘Look what we can get away with.' And so they were proud of what they were doing; they were not humiliated. They lost their ability to empathize with the other, the enemy."

"They didn't necessarily have any histories of lacking empathy, being insensitive to others, being abusive, or violent or torturous in any other relationships in any of their lives," Dr. Phil notes.

"Absolutely not," he says.

Dr. Zimbardo says Staff Sergeant Frederick had a spotless record all the way back to high school. "He had never done anything wrong, and he gets down to that basement, and suddenly, things begin to unravel. Again, it's a complicated situation because it's high stress. Abu Ghraib is always under bombardment, prisoners are escaping, he's in charge of 60 Iraqi policemen who are helping prisoners escape, smuggling drugs in. There are 1,000 prisoners, many of them are naked anyway, because we didn't have enough uniforms, and also, nakedness was a dehumanization tactic promoted by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld at the time. So, he's trapped in this thing. They told these guys, ‘You have to help us break the prisoners, so when we interrogate them, they'll spill the beans, they'll give us actual intelligence.' And so essentially, they said, ‘Do whatever you have to do, take the gloves off' " they used euphemisms: ‘Take the gloves off; break them. And then there's no one to set limits on what is acceptable and what's not. And so, here's a case of the power of a situation. Everybody on the night shift did the bad things you saw, and even worse. These are only a few of the thousand pictures they took, and no one on the day shift did it. You never get those abuses where you have senior officers showing oversight, surveillance, and a clear statement: ‘Here are the rules of engagement. This is what you can do; this is what you can't do.'"

Dr. Phil questions his audience. Many of them believe that a person's behavior might be changed based on the dynamic of the group.

[AD]"What we underestimate is how often we go along to get along. And you really want to be liked. You want to be liked by strangers," Dr. Zimbardo says.

Join the discussion on the DrPhil.com message board, Facebook and Twitter. Do you think you have an inner demon that could be unlocked, depending on the situation? Share your thoughts!