Are We All Potentially Evil?: A New Dramatic Film Based on the Stanford Prison Experiment Reveals Why Good People Turn Bad


The barbaric acts of ISIS in the Middle East and elsewhere (including lone wolf acts here and in Europe) have renewed the use of an adjective most commonly affiliated with Nazis–evil. In fact, British Prime Minister David Cameron evoked Hitler in his recent speech outlining a five year plan to combat Islamic extremism, starting with the acknowledgment that it is an ideology, and “Like so many ideologies that have existed before–whether fascist or communist–many people, especially young people, are being drawn to it. So we need to understand why it is proving so attractive.” Another way to say it is this: why do good people turn bad?

Anyone who has taken an introductory psychology course or has ever glanced at the scientific literature on the psychology of evil is familiar with Philip Zimbardo’s now-famous experiment conducted in a make-shift prison in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford University in August, 1971, in which the social psychologist randomly assigned 24 student volunteers to be either guards or prisoners. The experiment was to last two weeks but Zimbardo had to terminate it after six days when these intelligent and educated young men were transformed into cruel and sadistic guards or emotionally shattered prisoners. Not a formal experiment per se–with control and experimental groups for comparison–a flip of a coin to determine whether a student subject would be assigned to play guard or prisoner allows us to draw conclusions about the power of the situation to effect similar people dissimilarly.


Over the decades much has been written about the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), both in scholarly journals and in popular publications, and a number of documentaries have been made using archival footage shot by Zimbardo’s team. But now for the first time a —> Read More