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How the Stanford prison experiment gave us the wrong idea about evil

The Stanford prison experiment shaped our understanding of evil. It has led us badly astray

What the Stanford Prison Experiment got wrong. Photo: Prospect composite

Inhumanity is as old as humanity itself, yet—curiously—we can trace our modern understanding of it to a single year: 1961. Until then, to the extent that they were ready to grapple with the horrors of the gulag and the gas chamber at all, thinkers sought an answer to the “how could they do that?” question with the idea of a distinct individual pathology. The old presumption was that those who do monstrous things must themselves be monsters. But, in…

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