Yesterday, Maria Popova highlighted the 40th anniversary of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment in an article on her blog. As she explores, the SPE was an extremely controversial experiment where college age volunteers were divided into “guards” and “prisoners” and told to play their assigned roles for two weeks. The two groups played their roles so well that the experiment took on the life of a real prison, and the project was stopped on day six. The results revealed a horrifyingly ugly side of human nature, a side lurking within the common man – not simply sociopaths and the mentally unbalanced, as is often suggested.

Many have tried to explain away the results of this experiment (along with the findings of the Milgram Experiment, interviews with Nazi and Soviet guards, etc.), but the nagging conclusion seems to remain – these capabilities are part of human nature, and all it takes a slight tip of the scales to bring them out. The real question is: What conditions and philosophies help bring these capabilities to the surface? And what can we do to control such inner darkness?