In a notorious experiment to investigate the psychology of imprisonment, Dr. Philip Zimbardo created a mock penitentiary in which student volunteers were randomly assigned to be either guard or prisoner. The film, “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” is a dramatic re-creation of the study’s shocking turn of events. The participants rapidly descend into their assigned roles, with guards becoming cruel and sadistic and prisoners rebelling or sinking into despair. Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) and his team monitor the escalation of action, not realizing that they too have shed their identities and been absorbed into the experiment. After the screening, the Festival hosted a discussion exploring the film’s central question, a refrain echoing from Auschwitz to Abu Ghraib to ISIS: What insight does science provide regarding why some of us become capable of extraordinary cruelty?
This program was supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation as part of its Public Understanding of Science and Technology Initiative.