Stanford University is one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the US, for this not only a place for teaching, but also research and pushing the boundaries. A circumstance, what you can find in their German motto, based on the poet and reformer Ulrich von Hutten (1488 – 1523): “Die Luft der Freiheit weht”, to be translated as “The wind of freedom blows”.

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The university became famous for one of the most relevant social psychological experiments regarding Ethical Blindness, the 1971 “Stanford Prison Experiment”. It was designed by Professor Philip Zimbardo, who wanted to find an answer to the question what happens if you “put good people in an evil place.”

A group of students had been randomly grouped as prisoners and guards. This to study how fast and easy an individual will take on his or her new role. The result had been quite frightening, as parts of the prisoners started a revolution and guards answered with violence. For this Professor Zimbardo had to cancel the experiment early.

The results inspired most modern Ethical Blindness trainings, but there is one less known detail, what showed a second level of the experiment: Zimbardo became apparently the same victim as his prisoners and guards. In a BBC documentation he admitted that more and more he left his primary role: “I totally lost the whole other identity as scientists, researcher,…”, and instead he took on the role of the organizer. He saw that his idea was slowly getting out of control and tried to find solutions to get the experiment going. A circumstance that he got aware of, as one of his colleagues wanted to speak with him and discuss the psychological value of the theory. As Zimbardo was under the stress to manage the experiment, he acted quite aggressive; this moment was a turning-point as he became aware of his Ethical Blindness and at the end let to his decision to terminate the experiment.

There had been criticism to the experiment and its executing. For this you may be cautious to generalize the results, especially as other factors had not been taken into account, such as knowledge, self-selection, attitudes or personal values of the participants.

That the researcher stated from himself that he lost his primary role, gives room to argue that he was not the independent observer, but actively participating in the experiment, for this no surprise that he interpreted some of his students’ results based on his own personal experience. Nevertheless the understanding stays that, just as Vincent van Gogh already recognized earlier, if you put your heart and soul in your work, it is possible to lose your mind in the process.

Sources:

BBC (2002): The Stanford Prison Experiment

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