What the 1971 Stanford prison experiment teaches us about workplace bullying


In August 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted a famous experiment featuring a mock prison setting whose results are cited time and again as evidence of how everyday human beings can be easily transformed into heartless tyrants. In a recent article for the New Yorker, however, psychology and science writer Maria Konnikova revisits the conditions for that experiment and comes up with a different lesson, one that carries great significance for those trying to understand the nature of workplace bullying and abusive work environments. The Stanford Prison Experiment recruited a group of middle-class college students and then randomly divided them into two groups, guards and prisoners. Konnikova describes the commonly accepted version of what happened next:

According to the lore that’s grown up around the experiment, the guards, with little to no instruction, began humiliating and psychologically abusing the prisoners within twenty-four hours of the study’s start. The prisoners, in turn, became submissive and depersonalized, taking the abuse and saying little in protest. The behavior of all involved was so extreme that the experiment, which was meant to last two weeks, was terminated after six days.

Interpretations of the experiment followed in step: Ordinary people, when given too much power and the right nudge, can become tyrannical and abusive. Today, writes Konnikova, “(t)he Stanford Prison Experiment is cited as evidence of the atavistic impulses that lurk within us all . . . .” But hold on, let’s not jump to conclusions about the inner demon that lies within us. Konnikova points out that the guards were instructed to process the prisoners in ways that demeaned and humiliated them, including being stripped, searched, deloused, and given a numbered gown that served as a prison uniform. In addition, Dr. Zimbardo himself played the role of prison superintendent, tacitly approving of the guards’ behavior. Even the ad soliciting participants, which expressly referred to an experiment on the psychology of prison life, may have planted seeds of expected role behavior. Konnikova summarizes what she believes is the genuine lesson of the experiment:

While it’s true that some guards and prisoners behaved in alarming ways, it’s also the case that their environment was designed to encourage—and, in some cases, to require—those behaviors.


The lesson of Stanford isn’t that any random human being is capable of descending into sadism and tyranny. It’s that certain institutions and environments demand those behaviors—and, perhaps, can change them.

Applied to workplace bullying

Many of you can probably guess where I’m going with this.

There’s a lot more to Konnikova’s thought-provoking and informative article, but the main message carries great significance for our understanding of the dynamics of workplace bullying: Organizational culture counts. Leadership counts. Management practices count.

In fact, when I read Konnikova’s piece, I was reminded of a post from last summer in which I wrote about philosopher Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil:

Philosopher Hannah Arendt invoked the phrase “banality of evil” to describe how Adolf Eichmann served as one of Hitler’s architects of the Holocaust. Since then, the phrase has come to represent — in more generic terms — how ordinary people become easily invested in the values of a morally bankrupt status quo and participate in terrible behaviors that seemingly are unthinkable in civilized society. These insights teach us a lot about how bureaucratic enablers of abusive bosses can help to facilitate the destruction of a bullying target. These professional handmaidens (usually HR folks and employment lawyers) are more than simple bystanders; rather, they are complicit in the abuse.

Much more often than not, when workplace bullying occurs, it is supported, conducted, enabled, validated, and/or defended by senior leadership. Furthermore, in the modern workplace, a “successful” campaign of targeted abuse often requires the willing cooperation and assistance of multiple underlings.

10 responses

  1. Nice article. Yes, it is leadership that enables bullying. I commented on the New Yorker article. The Standford Prison Experiment followed the 1963 Milgram Experiment that demonstrated – per Arendt – that people when instructed by authority to afflict pain would most generally do so.

  2. Which is why bullying moves so quickly into mobbing.

    The worst part is that those who stand by and do nothing that is the greater hurt to the targets.

    • I agree with Sylvie’s reasoning why those who stand-by do not do anything. I also think there are additional dynamics that may be at play in some situations.

      Most of us have been raised to respect authority – whether out of fear, respect, whatever the conditioning or experiences. For those who have never experienced work abuse, some may perceive those who are being abused as somehow deserving of it. Or, that there ‘should be’ a recourse they should take when being abused – and if they are not taking it (or it’s not appearing successful), then, again, they may have done something to deserve it.

      Also, most of us don’t want to feel discomfort, so ignoring others’ discomfort is just easier to do. People can rationalize all sorts of things.

      The actions (or lack thereof) of those in power steer the ship. Then, too, are all the dynamics of how the subordinates ‘respond’ to the power, act upon their own agendas, etc. Unfortunately, there are many who might take advantage of someone else’s troubles – however subtle or blatant.

      If two people saw a colleague being unmercifully abused at work and made the decision to go to management to support the person being abused, think about what gets put into action as a result. And, honestly, I do not think it would be a whole lot different if five people went to management. In far too many situations, the response still wouldn’t be about the person being abused, but it would be about those in power and their quest to maintain or regain an equilibrium that is comfortable for them. HOW that is done is so dependent upon that person in power.

      The sad thing is, by standing up for someone else, it often just means there are more victims. Some might say that it shouldn’t make any difference, that people should do the right thing. When a person becomes a target, it’s very difficult to help the other target.

  3. This reminds me of the debate between Goldhagen (Hitler’s Willing Executioners) and Browning (Ordinary Men), scholars who studied the same police battalion in WWII and came to very different conclusions about why these men killed Jews. Both men admit that the Nazi regime was terrifying and had a role in the men’s engagement with the Holocaust, but Goldhagen points to culture–not just Nazi culture, but an external culture–enabling what the Nazi’s wanted even if not every person believed in Nazi ideology. I think there are layers to the “culture” that validates bullying, including the idea Krugman wrote about the other day that American workers are lazy despite all evidence to the contrary.

    • Kathy, thanks for mentioning the Goldhagen thesis, which I’ve always found intriguing and largely persuasive. I wish we didn’t have to look to the Nazi regime for insights on how to understand virulently destructive interpersonal abuse in more “everyday” settings, but I find myself returning to that literature in order to understand core roots.

  4. Bullying in the workplace is tolerated by fellow employees not because they see nothing wrong with it. If one is afraid of losing one’s job or becoming a new target of bullying, self-preservation rather than jeopardizing oneself in the name of what is morally right would seem to be a sad but logical norm.

  5. Interesting that there has been no mention of how the study highlighted the behaviour of men, and the results generalized to the human population. It would be interesting if a parallel study were conducted- perhaps featuring “patients” in humiliating hospital gowns and “nurses” (who famously eat their young). The common institutionalized behaviours might well suggest areas in need of reform, and highlight any behavioural differences between male and female participants and provide fodder for all kinds of speculation.

  6. Pingback: What the 1971 Stanford prison experiment teaches us about workplace bullying – Ponderings of a Victim that Survived

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