For nearly 50 years now, the Stanford Prison Experiment has been held up as proof of how combustible personal interactions can be, how the bonds of humanity can disappear in a flash.
The purpose of the experiment, conducted by a recently tenured young Stanford psychology professor, Philip Zimbardo, was to examine how authority was wielded within prison walls.
Guards spewed verbal abuse, manhandling the prisoners and demanding that they go to the bathroom in buckets.
Noam Cohen is a journalist and author of The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball, which uses the history of computer science and Stanford University to understand the libertarian ideas promoted by tech leaders.
From the chaos, a vital lesson emerged for Zimbardo: “Ordinary students can do horrible things.”
This insight found fertile soil in the early 1970s.