In a discussion of the PBS show Manor House on Brad DeLong’s weblog, a reader compared it to Zimbardo’s experiment. The Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted by Dr Philip Zimbardo, recruited some volunteers who participated in a prison simulation. Some volunteers played the role of prisoners, others played the role of prison guards. The experiment was so psychologically effective (in that both the prisoners and guards embraced their roles fully) that it had to be ended after only 6 days. The results of the Manor House were similar.

Every time I read about “monsters” like Saddam Hussein and his sons and cohorts, I think about these sorts of experiments. It’s foolish to forget that all people have a varying capacity for monstrous behavior, and indeed for craven submission to the application of authority. To delude ourselves as thinking that criminals, or terrorists, or dictators are somehow fundamentally different from the people we encounter in everyday lives is a dangerous mistake to make.

The original comment on DeLong’s weblog mentioned the Milgram experiment, which is the famous experiment that demonstrated that a large percentage of people would torture other people if ordered to do so.