Power of Situation

Evil acts cannot always be attributed to the person - at least to some extent, people can be victims of the Power of the Situation. This is the same theory as that "If you put good apples into a bad situation you get bad apples”.

The major psychological study attributed to this is the Stanford Prison Experiment, but there are many real-world examples of people acting in ways completely opposed to their normal behaviour, when put in an exceptional situation.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment was performed by Phil Zimbardo in August 1971 to study the psychological effects of being a prisoner/prison guard. 24 male students were selected out of 75 applicants (screened to remove sadism or violence), and randomly assigned the role of prisoner or guard.

Guards were left to their own devices and made their own rules. They started with forcing prisoners to do 'punishments' such as chants and pushups, and progressed to making them clean toilets.

The experiment was cancelled after 6 days (rather than 2 weeks), after a PhD student pulled Zimbardo (acting as Warden) out of the study and pointed out the ethical problems occurring.

  • Some prisoners had to be released early due to severe distress
  • Several prisoners were taken ill
  • Guards developed disparaging attitudes towards prisoners, devising cruel/degrading routines
  • Guards took on more and more power on their own initiative
  • Prisoners had severe attitude changes

Videos can be found here and here