Two key lessons emerge from history and psychology. One is that we must examine tyranny and resistance in tandem, never letting our concern with the one lead us to forget about the other. The second is that groups might sometimes be a source of tyranny, but they are always central to resistance.
These conclusions raise two obvious questions – the questions which led us to undertake our study:
First, when do people go along with oppressive groups? Second, when do people act as a group to challenge oppression?
In order to address these questions, we reasoned that it made sense to conduct a prison study like Zimbardo’s, because his study had produced powerful evidence of oppressive behaviour but had also revealed the seeds of resistance.
Hence the idea for the BBC Prison Study was born. We began the nine-month period of planning an experiment that was powerful enough to address issues of tyranny and resistance but ethical enough to pass stringent professional tests.