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At the center of 'Veneer Theory': Are people fundamentally good or evil?


Are people fundamentally good or evil? That's at the center of veneer theory, the idea that without the thin veneer of law, order and authority, human beings revert to selfish beasts. Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah are the hosts of NPR's history podcast Throughline. They tell us how a famous psychology experiment from the 1970s that's been used to uphold this view may have some holes in it.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: These are not prisoners, and this is not a prison. They are college students, and they were part of an astonishing experiment.

RUTGER BREGMAN: The Stanford prison experiment is the most famous experiment in the history of psychology.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: This is Rutger Bregman, Dutch historian and author of the book "Humankind: A Hopeful History."

BREGMAN: And it was done by a young psychologist named Philip Zimbardo. And he had a pretty simple idea. He recruited 24 students, and he said to 12 of them, you're going to be the guards, and to the other 12, you're going to be the prisoners. And so he put these prisoners in a fake prison in the basement of Stanford University.


ARABLOUEI: Zimbardo and his team wanted to see what happened when people either became guards or prisoners. The prisoners' rights movement had started the decade before, and Zimbardo wanted to show how the U.S. prison system was failing when it came to abuse of prisoners.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: There, they were led to a simulated prison block consisting of three small cells, a narrow hallway, and a closet designed for solitary confinement. This would be their entire world for two weeks.

ARABLOUEI: The experiment was filmed by Zimbardo and his research team, and on the first day it was mostly uneventful. The students playing prisoners were taken and put into their cells. But then on the second day of the experiment...

BREGMAN: Things began to unravel.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There was a very sharp change in the whole nature of what was happening in that prison.

BREGMAN: There was a rebellion among the inmates.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: They refused to eat. They barricaded themselves in their cells. They started ripping off their numbers, started screaming out obscenities at the guards.

BREGMAN: And that was countered by the guards with fire extinguishers. And after that, the guards, you know, basically did all kinds of terrible things. They tried to break their subordinates.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The guards then began to escalate their use of power. Some of them had prisoners clean out toilet bowls with their bare hands, to do things which were really degrading and humiliating. And the prisoners did it without complaining, just did it because this is what they had to do.

BREGMAN: So that's one of the reasons that the Stanford prison experiment became so famous, because if you just look at the video of it, it's very, very powerful. And you think, what happened to these guys?


BREGMAN: And the story, as it's been told for, well, half a century, was that these guards - they initially described themselves as hippies, pacifists - right? - who would never hurt a fly. But then in the context of being in that prison and being handed this power over the prisoners, they turn into monsters. So it's a very powerful illustration of veneer theory, right? These boys showed who they really were once they were in that situation.

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: The results of the Stanford prison experiment made it into almost all psychology textbooks. And its essential takeaway that given the right context, human beings will be quick to act brutally, was often accepted uncritically.

BREGMAN: The way I see it is that they were just telling a very old story with basically the same message. People deep down are just rotten. We are rotten to the core.


ABDELFATAH: But when Rutger was writing his book, he wanted to find out whether anyone had actually really looked into the Stanford prison experiment. And that's when he...

BREGMAN: Stumbled upon this study published in French. It's a study by a sociologist called Thibault Le Texier.

ABDELFATAH: It was first published in 2018.

BREGMAN: This is astounding. He was the first one to go into the archives of the Stanford prison experiment to study what really happened.

ABDELFATAH: Le Texier got on a plane and flew to California, went to Stanford and did just that.

BREGMAN: And what he found was really, really shocking.

ARABLOUEI: Le Texier spent hours and hours looking through videos and documents that showed...

BREGMAN: These students were being pressured all the time to behave as nasty and sadistic as possible.

ARABLOUEI: And they weren't all up for it. Some student guards said things like...

BREGMAN: If it were up to me, I would just, you know, sit here and play cards and make music together with the inmates. But that's obviously not the result that Philip Zimbardo wanted. So he, together with one of his co-researcher, a man named David Jaffe - they basically pulled a huge amount of tricks to convince these students to start behaving in a really terrible way.

ARABLOUEI: David Jaffe, Zimbardo's co-researcher, also played the role of prison warden. In one of the recordings from the Stanford archives, you can hear him pushing one of the guards in the experiment to be tough on the inmates.


DAVID JAFFE: But we really want to get you active and involved because the guards have to know that every guard is going to be what we call...

ARABLOUEI: Jaffe tells the participant he has to be a tough guard, to which the participant responds...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I'm not too tough.

ARABLOUEI: ...I'm not too tough.


JAFFE: You have to kind of try and get it in you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Well, I don't know about that.

ABDELFATAH: Zimbardo has acknowledged that there were problems with the methodology of his study, but he defends the study's conclusions and says the experiment was a cautionary tale of what would happen to anyone if we underestimate the power of social roles and systemic structures.

ARABLOUEI: Why do you think this study has been so persistent? Like, even though people have clearly debunked it, why do people still believe in it?

BREGMAN: It's just exciting. It's a fantastic, compelling story. There's this concept in medicine, you know, the notion of a placebo. You know, you give someone a pill, and if only the person believes that that pill will cure him, then, you know, it may actually do. We humans - we become the stories that we tell ourselves. Our stories are never just stories. They are self-fulfilling prophecies.

MARTÍNEZ: That was historian Rutger Bregman speaking with Throughline's Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah. You can listen to the whole episode wherever you get your podcast. And by the way, Throughline reached out to Philip Zimbardo for comment, and he responded by saying he was too unwell to participate. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host and producer of Throughline, a podcast that explores the history of current events. In that role, she's responsible for all aspects of the podcast's production, including development of episode concepts, interviewing guests, and sound design.
Ramtin Arablouei is co-host and co-producer of NPR's podcast Throughline, a show that explores history through creative, immersive storytelling designed to reintroduce history to new audiences.