The standard story, given by the experimenter Phillip Zimbardo, is that the experiment is a lesson about how everyday people (and groups consisting of everyday people), when given too much power, can become sadistic tyrants. In a recent article for The New Yorker, Maria Konnikova casts some doubt on that conclusion, arguing that the real lesson is the power of institutions to shape behavior, and how people are shaped by those preexisting expectations.
While this is certainly a valuable lesson, I believe another crucial variable at play—rarely mentioned by commentators of the prison experiment or even in psychology textbooks—is the person. Yes, power corrupts. But power does not corrupt everyone equally.