May 29th, 2009
11:56 AM ET

Can good people become evil?

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/WORLD/meast/05/21/iraq.abu.ghraib.impact/art.abu.ghraib.file.pool.jpg]


What happens when you put good people in an evil place? Does humanity win over evil, or does evil triumph? These are some of the questions posed in a 1971 simulation of prison life conducted in the summer of 1971 at Stanford University.

The Stanford prison experiment was a study of the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. The experiment was conducted in 1971 by a team of researchers led by Psychology Professor Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University. Twenty-four undergraduates were selected out of 70 to play the roles of both guards and prisoners and live in a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. Those selected were chosen for their lack of psychological issues, crime history, and medical disabilities, in order to obtain a representative sample. Roles were assigned based on a coin toss.

Take a look at the Stanford Prison Experiment web site, which features an extensive slide show and information about this classic psychology experiment, including parallels with the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Torture
soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Mari

    Yes, good people can be evil. How else do you explain the rise of Nazi Germany or Fascist Spain?

    Even though the German people, knew about the concentration camps in their backyards, the vast majority did nothing to stop the slaughter of innocent Jews, even some Christians, Gypsies and Gays.

    Yes, sadly there is good and evil in this world.

    May 29, 2009 at 4:17 pm |
  2. Devi

    Every person have control over their mind, being influenced from your environment is another matter.

    May 29, 2009 at 3:21 pm |
  3. earlw,florida

    I find people the most difficult creatures to communicate with,should I consider myself strange? Indeed, I sense sight alone,with ample distance as my greatest defense. Man has a litany of passive,and agressive personas. Deep inside our sub-conscious which build,and manifest our very character throughout life.The litmus test for people to become evil is predicated on the circumstanses of our survival instincts,without thought of questionable morality! It is self-evident in our sordid past regarding the treatment of prisoners as sub-human beings deserving of all punishment! Sad,but true,...

    May 29, 2009 at 3:07 pm |
  4. Stacy

    Human beings can be capable of anything. Never underestimate the power of the situation. I find the whole subject fascinating and think Zimbardo would be an interesting guest to have on the show. Besides the Stanford experiment, more recently he wrote a book on this subject titled "The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil."

    May 29, 2009 at 2:10 pm |
  5. Elizabeth, San Antonio TX

    I would believe that good people can become evil, based on the person. I believe that the way a person handles a situation determines whether a persons personality can change. Many people who are susceptible to following in the foot steps of others tend to be the people who change there personalities often. Not to say that strong minded individuals can not be evil but it would be a lot harder to change a strong minded person rather that a follower.

    May 29, 2009 at 2:10 pm |
  6. Marcella Mroczkowski

    The answer to your question is yes, good people can all too easily become evil. We are all biologically programmed with a tendency to demonize and dehumanize those we perceive of as outsiders or enemies. It is part of our biological heritage as a social species. Both chimp and human groups with war over territitory with other groups of their own kind and wipe each other out – genocide. Becoming civilized means understanding and overcoming this tendency within ourselves, but as the Milgram experiments show in a truly frightening way, it is not nearly as easy as you would think.

    May 29, 2009 at 1:59 pm |
  7. Nacola

    Yes! I believe that if Your enviroment is EVIL you will eventually become EVIl. How long do you have to pretend to be something Before you BECOME it?

    May 29, 2009 at 1:57 pm |
  8. Marcella Mroczkowski

    I believe the Stanely Milgram experiments at Yale are more effective demonstrations of the same human vulnerability toward evil. There the majority of people willingly administered severe electric to subjects when instructed to by authority figures. (Fortunately the shocks were faked.) The Milgram experiement is not vulnerable to playacting like this one is, for all its dramatic impact.

    I would also urge you to consult journalist Rush Dozier's 2003 book, Why We Hate, exploring the neuroscience underlying our inhumanity to each other.

    Harvard's Richard Wrangham studied under Jane Goodall and has probably done more than anyone else studying and comparing chimpanzee and human warfare. Check out his 1997 book with Dale Peterson

    May 29, 2009 at 1:54 pm |
  9. lam0nt Austin

    Yes if you tortue them to get info that doesnt exist!!!

    Lamont austin
    Tucson Az

    May 29, 2009 at 1:49 pm |
  10. Elle

    I don't believe there is such a thing as good or evil. Everyone is capable of anything put in a certain circumstance

    May 29, 2009 at 1:34 pm |