What is the Stanford Prison Experiment?


In August 1971, 24 participants were “arrested,” for a simulated prison experiment. Phillip Zimbardo, a college professor working at Stanford University was the lead researcher in a team that’s goal was to investigate the psychological effects of perceived power, specifically focusing on the struggle between prisoners and prison officers. This experiment was funded by the U.s Office of Naval Research as a way to investigate the causes of difficulties between the guards and prisoners in the US Navy and Marine Corps. Diving further into this famous experiment we will find the methods, goals, and results of what happened in “Stanford County Jail.”

Phillip Zimbardo and his team wanted to test the hypothesis that the personality traits of prisoners and guards are the main cause of abusive behavior in prison.  The team chose 24 male students that were tested on their psychological and physical ability. They were also intentionally selected to exclude any participant with a criminal background to reduce bias. All of the participants were white, middle-class students with liberal perspectives. They all agreed to participate in a 7-14 day simulation and receive $15 per day (Worth $90 in 2017).

The experiment was conducted in the basement of Jordan Hall, Stanford’s psychology building. The prison had two fabricated walls, one at the entrance and one at the cell wall to block the team’s observation. Each cell contained only 3 cots for 3 prisoners, however, the guards lived in a luxurious state with rest and relaxation areas.  There was a small corridor for the prison yard, a closet for solitary confinement, and a bigger room across from the prisoners for the guards and warden. It was mandatory that prisoners had to stay in their cells and the yard all day and night. Guards worked in teams of three for eight-hour shifts and were granted the ability to go home after their shift. The role of prisoner and guard were divided equally among the 24 participants. Zimbardo took on the role of the superintendent and his research assistant took on the role of the warden. Zimbardo designed the experiment to induce disorientation, depersonalization, and deindividuation in the participants. On August 14th, every participant was arrested for robbery and had a blindfold put on them so they did not know where they were being taken. When they arrived at the prison, they were stripped of all of their clothing, searched, and then given a tunic with a prison number. They were also given stocking caps to put on their head and called by a given number rather than their name to depersonalize their identities. The guards were given wooden batons and clothing similar to those of a prison guard to establish their status. They were also given mirrored sunglasses to prevent eye-contact. All of these tactics used by the research team was to create the prison feel and to create the power structure in the mock prison.

The first day was uneventful, but on the second day, the prisoners in Cell 1 blocked their cell door with their beds, took off their stocking caps, and refused to come out while cursing at the guards. Guards from the other shifts volunteered to help with the rebellion, ultimately subduing the prisoners by spraying them with fire extinguishers (unsupervised by the research team). Guards quickly felt themselves losing control, and one of the guards had suggested that they should you psychological tactics to regain control. They set up a “privilege cell,” where prisoners who did not participate in the revolt received special treatment. After 36 hours, one particular prisoner, Prisoner #8612, began to go “crazy.” He started to scream, curse, and seemed very out of control. He begged the research team to get him out, but initially, they refused because his behavior seemed fabricated. Phillip Zimbardo eventually came to the conclusion that he was really suffering and they released him. The sanitary conditions declined because guards were refusing inmates to relieve themselves in the designated bucket and even refused to empty it. Basic needs became a luxury, and prisoners were constantly degraded. Guards became very sadistic in their methods of control and the prisoners became situationally depressed, submissive, and suffered from anxiety. After a series of psychologically damaging tactics used against the prisoners, on August 20th, 1971, the experiment was terminated.

The results of the experiment exposed that the situation, rather than their individual personalities, caused the behaviors of the participants. Because some of the guard’s behaviors imposed psychologically damaging situations, Phillip Zimbardo received backlash for not stopping the behavior under his supervision. In fact, it took a lot of convincing from Christina Maslach, his research partner, and his wife, to realize that the continuation of the experiment is unethical.  This experiment became widely known for the unethical conduct that occurred during those 6 short days.


Source:  Stanford Prison Experiment. (2017). The Story: An Overview of the Experiment. [online] Available at: http://www.prisonexp.org/the-story [Accessed 28 Nov. 2017].




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