In 1971, Stanford psychology professor Phillip Zimbardo randomly selected 24 white male students of the same age for an experiment, arbitrarily assigned each a role of “prisoner” or “guard,” and placed them in a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. In the course of six days, the “guards” were transformed from decent, average students to power-hungry authoritarians who subjected the “prisoners” to psychological torture.
How did these seemingly normal, well-intentioned human beings find it acceptable to traumatize their fellow peers—to abuse them to the point of mental breakdowns? After all, they knew that their roles of “guard” and “prisoner” were assigned entirely by chance—before the experiment, they were all equal.
I find this vicious and terrifying side of human nature fascinating. Franz Kafka beautifully and tragically illustrates this in his famed novel, The Metamorphosis. When Gregor Samsa wakes up suddenly one morning to find that he has been transformed into a monstrous insect, his family turns their backs on him. Embarrassed and disgusted, at first they merely ignore him. But eventually they grow increasingly violent in how they treat Gregor, their own brother and son.