The Stanford prison experiment shaped our understanding of evil. It has led us badly astrayby Stephen Reicher, Alex Haslam and Jay Van Bavel / March 6, 2019 / Leave a comment
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 the middle of 1961, two events—many thousands of miles away from each other—coincided to change our understanding entirely. They started to paint the grim picture of the brute within us all—a picture which appeared to be confirmed by the notorious Stanford prison experiment 10 years later. But it is a picture which new evidence is fast unravelling.
Back in 1961 however, the first of those two defining events was the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. One of those sitting in the courtroom was the political philosopher Hannah Arendt. Like those around her, she expected the man responsible for millions of deaths to be a terrifying figure. What she saw instead was a balding, rather hunched and altogether insignificant individual. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt concluded that it was that very insignificance which ultimately made him more terrifying than she had imagined, for it suggested that anyone could become a genocidal perpetrator. The monster was not “out there” in others, it was inside all of us. And she summed up this idea in a phrase that haunts us still: “the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”
At the same time as Eichmann was on trial in Jerusalem, far across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, Stanley Milgram was in his Yale laboratory conducting the “obedience experiments” which would in time be famous. Participants were led to believe that they were taking part in a study about the effects of punishment on learning, in the role of a teacher. The real subject of the study was just how punishing they were prepared to be.
The experimenter instructed the “teachers” to give an escalating series of electric shocks each time a learner made an error on a memory task. In fact, the “learner” was acting—an accomplice of Milgram’s—and no real shocks were being given.…