The Stanford Prison Experiment is an infamous psych experiment performed in 1971 by Philip Zimbardo where volunteers were split into groups of "guards" and "prisoners". While both sides knew it was fake, they quickly began treating it as though it was real, with both groups spontaneously falling into their "roles". The "guards" (and researchers) quickly became abusive and sadistic, while the "prisoners" attempted to riot and showed symptoms associated with long-term incarceration.
Eventually, when Christina Maslach, a graduate student asked to conduct interviews with the test subjects, objected to the appalling conditions of the experiment (Zimbardo would later notice that out of the 50 people who had observed the experiment, Maslach had been the only one who initially questioned the morality of it), Zimbardo realized that not only had the situation begun to spin rapidly out of control, he himself had also unintentionally assumed a role of his own and was starting to act more as a warden than a researcher, leading him to decide that the experiment had to be stopped. And so the entire experiment was shut down after six days (it was originally planned to last two weeks), and is often used as an example of psychological research that cannot be repeated due to ethical concerns.
While many people know of the experiment, few realize how little it proves. The experiment was tainted by a combination of selection bias, insufficient controls, a small sample population, various methodological flaws, and not noting the personalities of guards before the experiment began (there was no attempt to discern if an evil guard was always sadistic, or only became sadistic during the experiment). Zimbardo dedicated much of his career to the promotion of the idea that bad environments drive bad behavior, and it's no coincidence that this study proved exactly that.
This scenario plays out on many reality TV shows. People in a staged environment start acting as though it were real, usually with dramatic changes in personality.
It is also an easily recognized plot premise for any kind of storytelling.
- Prison School: Kate references the actual Stanford prison experiment as her reason for recruiting Andre and Gakuto as prison guards to watch over the USC. At first the two, especially Gakuto, were uncomfortable bossing around the USC but by the second day, with a little prodding by Kate who gives the two prison guard uniforms, they're just as cruel as the USC were to them.
- Superman Family #194 was a commentary on the Experiment: Supergirl happens upon the students of New Athens Experimental School dressed as prison guards and inmates and fighting each other. When she asks what is going on, a student explains they are taking part in a Sociology experiment on human relationships run by Professor Martin: the campus has been turned into a mock prison, and the students have been labeled either "prisoner" or "guard". Though, they lost their minds and suddenly started attacking each other. Later, it's revealed Professor Martin is a super-villain who devised that "experiment" to manipulate the students into hating each other as part of a power-bidding scheme.
- German movie Das Experiment, which recreates the original Stanford experiment - but goes further. Things don't end well.
- The American remake of Das Experiment, The Experiment, pretty much says Humans Are Bastards.
- The 2015 film The Stanford Prison Experiment, a dramatic reenactment of the original event starring Billy Crudup as Zimbardo and Olivia Thirlby playing his fiancee Christina Maslach (who's a psychology student), who realizes that he's gone too far (she's the Only Sane Man at first).
- When I Was Ming the Merciless by Gene Wolfe invokes this trope, apparently being set in the aftermath of a particularly brutal large scale version of the experiment in a school. While the Stanford experiment is never mentioned, it is Wolfe's style to expect his readers to be familiar with it.
- The Overstory: Douglas Pavlicek participated in the original experiment during his youth, helping to shape him as a person throughout the rest of his life as he's haunted by how much of a useless bystander he was.
- Saga of Tanya the Evil: The man who would become Tanya learned about the Stanford Prison Experiment in college. Based on the experiment, he developed a cynical attitude about the world, believing that a person's actions are based more on their social position than their actual personality and that anyone with power will be quick to abuse it.
- The Colony: This show has a psychology expert who frequently describes how the fake postapocalyptic scenario is being treated as real by the contestants. For the credit of the show, it was very immersive in nature, up to the point where malnourishment and severe exhaustion became a norm for people in it, further reinforcing the scenario as "real".
- Veronica Mars: One episode had a psychology class running the Stanford Prison Experiment in Veronica's university, though it doesn't turn out quite the same way. While the "Guards" quickly assume their roles, the "Prisoners" manage to use their brains to mess with the "Guards".
- Episode "Debate" had Jeff referencing this very trope to argue that "man is evil".
- Episode "Beginner Pottery" involved several of the cast members taking a week-long sailing course. The sailboat was in the parking lot, but that didn't stop them from abandoning someone who fell overboard because that's what the teacher wanted.
- Life: In an episode, the Victim of the Week was a "guard" in one of these. The professor who was running it did it every semester for 5 days using college students.
- Sabrina the Teenage Witch: One episode had her class simulate the Salem Witch Trials and of course Sabrina ends up getting persecuted by her classmates, led by the Alpha Bitch. In the final twist, while the "witch" role was supposedly non-existent (the whole point of the simulation, the teacher said, was to prove the paranoia of the Salem trials), Sabrina finds her assigned role's paper in the final seconds of the episode (losing it is what allowed Libby to exploit the paranoia to pester her)... and sure enough, it says "witch".
- Star Trek: Voyager episode "Real Life": In a possibly related example, The Doctor attempts to learn about family relationships by creating a home life in the holodeck with a holographic wife and kids. He ends up getting really emotionally invested in it, to the point where when his holo-daughter dies, he's absolutely heartbroken.
- One season 8 episode of Castle played this completely straight - a local psychology professor, with the help of the US military, was running an unauthorized dungeon/torture chamber with students playing both parts. It's discovered when one of the students is murdered trying to escape.
- Manor House: Several participants eventually Became the Mask, most of them belonging to the privileged upstairs. For instance, John, playing the roll of a newly-knighted nouveau riche, becomes arrogant, assuring himself constantly that he is a benevolent employer who understands the hardships downstairs is going through and absolutely hates to add to their burdens, while at the same time being unyielding, unsympathetic, demanding and bigoted to them and others, seemingly oblivious to the fact that his personal opinions are starting to sound increasingly dismissive and self-entitled—at one point, his servants overhear him saying there are three levels of society, the knobs, the scutter, and the dregs (the latter referring to the servants), and he even tells his sister-in-law that he thinks educating women is a waste of money. However his wife, Dr. Anna Oliff-Cooper, is possibly the most extreme example. A modern, well-educated, capable, intelligent medical doctor in the beginning, but after just three months of living the life of an upper-crust Edwardian society woman... it's like she's been brainwashed. It gets just a tad eerie.
Lady Oliff-Cooper (in reference to her young son, Guy): And I was thinking to myself: 'He mustn't get too close to the servants'. Because eventually when he inherits the house, he'll have to stand his distance as the lord and master. And then I thought to myself: 'Oh dear, how ridiculous'. Of course because this isn't all for real, in three months time we go back home again. But for just that brief moment, this seemed completely real.
- Rasen, the second season of Ring: The Final Curse, featured a Japanese spin on the experiment - except it was done with children. Seven boys were placed into the role of criminals and a lone warden, who developed a sadistic side, severely traumatising the others, leading to two committing suicide. The warden grows up to become a manipulative criminal called the "King of Terror".
- Fallout: The Vaults were meant to provoke a Stanford Prison type of environment. Each with their own means of starting an experiment.
- Half-Life 2:
- It's revealed that the lower levels of the Combine forces, "Civil Protection" are completely unmodified humans, who initially join for the added rations and other benefits. The position of power, anonymity and access to stun-sticks does the rest of work turning them into a bunch of sociopathic thugs.
- The beta took this one step further: there would have been an arcade, wherein the NPC players controlled manhack drones hunting down refugees. The citizens are just too apathetic to care.
- Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal has a particularly scathing view of the experiment.
- Mentioned by name in Joe vs. Elan School, as the narrator compares the experiment's guardian and prisoner roles to those of Elan School. Except, as the narrator points out, Zimbardo's experiment had to be cut short after 6 days because it got out of hand, whereas Elan School ran uninterrupted for 41 years.
- American Dad!: In "American Data?", Steve and his friends are assigned the role of guards in Roger's attempt to recreate the Stanford Prison Experiment in the school's gymnasium. The boys quickly become cruel enough that the people who were assigned to be prisoners quit. Roger tries to continue the experiment with actual prisoners borrowed from a local penitentiary, but they immediately overpower the boys and take over the gym.