This is a horribly difficult book to read, not because Zimbardo’s writing is bad or the subject is uninteresting, but because it exposes how easily people can be manipulated into a role — and I don’t just mean the guards, but also the prisoners. It’s important because it examines, in minute detail, the events of a now infamous experiment: the Stanford Prison Experiment. This was run, not by Stanley Milgram, as people often think, but by Philip Zimbardo, and even he became caught up in the act of it. It wasn’t even a very convincing prison, and yet it quickly made both guards and prisoners act their roles. And not even them, but people outside it who should have seen through the illusion, like the chaplain.
Both this experiment and Stanley Milgram’s experiments are kind of horrifying, because we don’t want to think it’s that easy. If you read Behind the Shock Machine, by Gina Perry (the title links to my review), she shows that it’s not that easy — Milgram’s experiments were honed to a fine point, and only the results which supported his conclusions most spectacularly were published. But still, the fact remains that you don’t have to scratch far below the surface to find something unsavoury about the way humans seem to act.
As Dar Williams says in ‘Buzzer’: I get it now, I’m the face, I’m the cause of war; we don’t have to blame white-coated men anymore.
This book, this experiment, isn’t all there is to be said about human nature, of course. But it’s an important account of something which revolutionised our understanding of human psychology, and shone a light on things we need to examine — even if they turn out not to hold as true as we fear. Kudos to Zimbardo for his unflinching discussion of everything that went on in the experiment, and every time he failed to safeguard the interests of the participants.