Stanford prison experiment
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The Stanford prison experiment is the common name for a psychological study done in 1971 at Stanford by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo. Essentially, it placed students into the roles of guards and prisoners and immersed them in the roles by putting them in a setup designed to look like a prison. It was originally meant to run for 14 days, but was cut short at the request of Zimbardo's girlfriend.
Though not designed very well, it showed many disturbing conclusions about behavior of people due to role adoption. Participants that were guards quickly adopted their roles as guards and began to behave the way they believed was congruent with that role. The participants who were prisoners adopted the role of prisoners; they could leave at any time but none did, adopting the role of a prisoner who has their freedom taken away. The guards' behavior became increasingly sadistic and the experiment was shut down after six days out of the planned 14. Serious ethical questions arose after the experiment because of the level of abuse suffered by the "prisoners."
The results of this experiment showed the power of authority, as well as how people can assume roles and manifest behaviors that are harmful to themselves or others with the proper situation and institutionalized support. This study also highlights how atrocities like the Holocaust can happen, changing perfectly balanced people into monsters.
Many people have drawn a connection between known abuse in Abu Ghraib with the results of the Stanford study.