The Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) took place in 1971. Young men were divided into the roles of Prisoner and Guard and put in a prison-like environment in the basement of the Psychology Department at Stanford University. The study was meant to last two weeks. But the brutality of the Guards and the suffering of the Prisoners was so intense that it had to be terminated after only six days.
The study provided a graphic illustration of the power of situations to shape individuals' behaviour. Zimbardo argued that the Guards acted the way they did because they conformed blindly to their assigned role, as did he in his position as Prison Superintendent:
Furthermore, because the Guards could not help themselves, they could not be blamed for their actions.
Zimbardo has used this simple and powerful account to explain the atrocities committed by very diverse actors – from the suicide bombers who flew into New York’s Twin Towers on 9/11 to the American torturers at Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib prison.