In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a boy named Jack seizes control over fellow classmates stranded on an island, transforming them into a tribe of hunters and killers. How could Jack and his followers lose control so quickly when they had been proper English schoolboys just the week before?

Even though Lord of the Flies is just fiction, it shows frightening applications to the real world and how humans may potentially react in out-of-the-norm circumstances. A well-known psychology study conducted by Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University demonstrates just how badly ordinary people can behave when put into situations of power. His 1971 study has become a landmark in the history of psychology. Looking back, we find its lessons are still potent and relevant today.
Zimbardo was intrigued by reports of prison guards’ widespread cruelty. Is such behavior due to individuals’ callousness? Or could it be attributed to some other factor?

In the study, 24 university students were randomly assigned to the role of “prisoner” or “guard.” The “prisoners” were actually arrested from their dorms and blindfolded, handcuffed and dragged to the basement of a psychology building that had been modified to have empty cellars characteristic of an actual prison.2 They were forced to wear ragged tunics and were chained by their ankles. The “guards” wore khaki uniforms and mirrored sunglasses so the prisoners could not see their eyes. They were explicitly given complete control over the prisoners and told to take away the prisoners’ individuality and make them feel bored and scared.

While most people would expect only brutal and malicious people to actually abuse prisoners, especially in a fake prison setting, the experiment completely disconnected the students from their identities within the experiment. Soon after assuming their roles, the guards began to engage in brutal and abusive behavior. They forced the prisoners to wear bags on their heads, sleep on concrete and urinate and defecate in a bucket.2 The guards’ actions were voluntary; they assumed their roles far beyond the requirements of the experiment. Prisoners began to have uncontrollable screaming and crying fits.

What is perhaps most shocking is that the guards who committed these crimes were not social deviants — people who violate the norms of their communities. They were actually Stanford students specially selected for their responsibility and good character. However, when given power, these students drastically mistreated their fellow human beings. One guard remarked that he was “surprised at [himself]” after finding that he had completely lost his identity and had exercised tyrannical power over the prisoners. Overwhelmed by the out-of-control situation, Zimbardo shut the study down a week early.

Yet this horrific scenario extends beyond theory and experiment. In the 2004 Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the world saw this horror played out in real life. American guards committed egregious human rights violations in their treatment of Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison. Photos showed abused prisoners with bags over their faces, while American soldiers posed behind them giving the camera a “thumbs up.” Many of the guards later claimed they were swept up in the situation. They found it difficult to accept their own brutal acts.

While most of us will never be a prison guard or be stranded on an island, these shocking results demonstrate how responsible people may commit outrageously unethical actions. On a small scale in daily life, a boss may torment his employees, forcing them to work long hours or not allowing them time off during family emergencies. A post office worker may refuse to ship an important overnight letter, claiming the deadline passed two minutes earlier, or a Department of Motor Vehicles bureaucrat may send people to the back of a painfully long line for not filling out a form correctly. The abuse of total authority is a psychological phenomenon that applies broadly, from massive human rights abuses to a daily lack of empathy.

Everyone has an inner moral compass. Although there are a few rotten apples, even the most ethical person, when given complete authority over another individual, can lose the power to decide right from wrong.

About The Author