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The Stanford Prison Experiment is a film about an actual social psychological experiment conducted at Stanford University in 1971.

24 students out of a larger pool (one alternate ended up being used) were selected to take part in the experiment, which put half of them into a ‘prisoner’ group and half into a ‘guard’ group. They were then put into a makeshift prison and observed on camera by Professor Philip Zimbardo (played here by Billy Crudup), who was running the experiment, and his team. The idea behind it was to see the psychological effects of being in a particular role. The results were astonishing.

Almost immediately the guards, one in particular, began to display aggressive and sadistic tendencies, while the prisoners – now known only be numbers, instead of their names – started to get institutionalised, with some rebelling against the guards and others kowtowing to authority.

It’s not spoilerish to say that things got out of hand quickly and shockingly, but even knowing this going in, I was stunned to see how quickly people took on a new mantle and attitude due to the role they had been given. It’s worth bearing in mind that all of these subjects were students at Stanford University, with no criminal record or known psychological issues. They were all deemed to be stable and healthy. They all knew that it wasn’t an actual prison, yet they were all affected badly by what happened to them. It makes me shudder to think how someone with emotional or psychological issues could be affected.

This is certainly not an easy film to watch, but it was certainly difficult for me to tear my eyes away from the screen. Utterly compelling and unforgettable. I definitely recommend this film.

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