The Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford prison experiment was a psychological study of what it meant to be a prisoner and a prison guard, psychologically. The experiment was conducted in 1971 by a team of researchers led by psychologist Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University. Twenty-four undergraduates were selected out of 70 to play the roles of both guards and prisoners and live in a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. The students who were assigned to be the prisoners were paid $15 a day as an incentive, which is worth about $80 per day in 2008 dollars.

Prisoners and guards rapidly adapted to their roles, stepping beyond the boundaries of what had been predicted and leading to dangerous and psychologically damaging situations. One-third of the guards were judged to have exhibited “genuine” sadistic tendencies, while many prisoners were emotionally traumatized and two had to be removed from the experiment early. Finally, Zimbardo terminated the experiment because he realized that his experiment was unethical.

Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr wrote in 1981 that the Milgram Experiment in the 1960s and the later Zimbardo Experiment were frightening in their implications about the danger which lurks in the darker side of human nature.

Zimbardo and his team intended to test the hypothesis that prison guards and convicts were self-selecting of a certain disposition that would naturally lead to poor conditions. Participants were recruited via a newspaper ad and offered $15 a day to participate in a two-week “prison simulation.” Of the 75 respondents, Zimbardo and his team selected the 24 males whom they deemed to be the most psychologically stable and healthy. These participants were predominantly white and middle-class.

The “prison” itself was in the basement of Stanford’s Jordan Hall, which had been converted into a mock jail. An undergraduate research assistant was the “warden” and Zimbardo the “superintendent”. Zimbardo set up a number of specific conditions on the participants which he hoped would promote disorientation, depersonalization and deindividuation.

Guards were given wooden batons and a khaki, military-style uniform that they had chosen at a local military surplus store. They were also given mirrored sunglasses to prevent eye contact. Unlike the prisoners, the guards were to work in shifts and return home during off hours, though at times many would later volunteer for added duty without additional pay.

Prisoners were to wear only intentionally ill-fitting muslin smocks without underwear and rubber thong sandals, which Zimbardo said would force them to adopt “unfamiliar body postures” and discomfort in order to further their sense of disorientation. They were referred to by assigned numbers instead of by name. These numbers were sewn onto their uniforms, and the prisoners were required to wear tight-fitting nylon pantyhose caps to simulate shaven heads similar to those of military basic training. In addition, they wore a small chain around their ankles as a “constant reminder” of their imprisonment and oppression.

The day before the experiment, guards attended a brief orientation meeting but were given no formal guidelines other than that no physical violence was permitted. They were told it was their responsibility to run the prison, and they could do so in any way they wished.

Zimbardo provided the following statements to the “guards” in the briefing:

You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can create a notion of arbitrariness that their life is totally controlled by us, by the system, you, me, and they’ll have no privacy… We’re going to take away their individuality in various ways. In general what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness. That is, in this situation we’ll have all the power and they’ll have none.

The Stanford Prison Study video, quoted in Haslam & Reicher, 2003.

The participants who had been chosen to play the part of prisoners were told simply to wait in their homes to be “called” on the day the experiment began. Without any other warning, they were “charged” with armed robbery and arrested by the actual Palo Alto police department, who cooperated in this part of the experiment.

The prisoners were put through a full booking procedure by the police, including fingerprinting, having their mug shots taken, and information regarding their Miranda rights. They were transported to the mock prison where they were strip-searched, deloused, and given their new identities.

The experiment quickly grew out of hand. Prisoners suffered — and accepted — sadistic and humiliating treatment from the guards. The high level of stress progressively led them from rebellion to inhibition. By experiment’s end, many showed severe emotional disturbances.

After a relatively uneventful first day, a riot broke out on the second day. The guards volunteered to work extra hours and worked together to break the prisoner revolt, attacking the prisoners with fire extinguishers without supervision from the research staff.

Prisoner counts, initially devised for the prisoners to learn their identity numbers, degenerated to hour-long ordeals where guards tormented the prisoners and imposed physical punishments, including long bouts of forced exercise. The prison became dirty and inhospitable; bathroom rights became privileges, which could be, and frequently were, denied. Some prisoners were forced to clean toilets with bare hands. Mattresses were removed from the “bad” cell block and the prisoners forced to sleep naked on the concrete floor. Moreover, prisoners endured forced nudity and even sexual humiliation.

Zimbardo cited his own absorption in the experiment he guided, and in which he actively participated as Prison Superintendent. On the fourth day, he and the guards reacted to an escape rumor by attempting to move the entire experiment to a real, unused cell block at the local police station, because it was more secure. The police department refused, citing insurance liability concerns; Zimbardo recalls his anger and disgust with the lack of co-operation, between his and the police’s jails.

As the experiment proceeded, several guards became progressively sadistic. Experimenters said that approximately one-third of the guards exhibited genuine sadistic tendencies. Interestingly, most of the guards were upset when the experiment concluded early.

Zimbardo argued that the prisoner participants had internalized their roles, based on the fact that some had stated that they would accept parole even with the attached condition of forfeiting all of their experiment-participation pay. Yet, when their parole applications were all denied, none of the prisoner participants quit the experiment. Zimbardo argued they had no reason for continued participation in the experiment after having lost all monetary compensation, yet they did, because they had internalised the prisoner identity, they thought themselves prisoners, hence, they stayed.

A replacement prisoner was introduced; Prisoner No. 416, horrified at the guards’ treatment of the other prisoners, went on a hunger strike in an attempt to force his release. Instead, he was forced into a small closet for three hours of solitary confinement while forced to hold the meal he refused to eat. The other prisoners perceived Prisoner 416 as a troublemaker. To exploit this feeling, the guards offered the prisoners a choice: Either the prisoners could give up their blankets, or No. 416 would be kept in overnight solitary confinement. All but one of the prisoners chose to keep his blanket.

Zimbardo concluded the experiment early when Christina Maslach, a graduate student he was then dating (and later married), objected to the appalling conditions of the prison after she was introduced to the experiment to conduct interviews. Zimbardo noted that of more than fifty outside persons who had seen the prison, Maslach was the only one who questioned its morality. After only six days, of a planned two weeks’ duration, the Stanford Prison experiment was shut down.

The Stanford experiment ended on August 20, 1971, only 6 days after it began instead of the 14 it was supposed to have lasted. The experiment’s result has been argued to demonstrate the impressionability and obedience of people when provided with a legitimizing ideology and social and institutional support. It is also used to illustrate cognitive dissonance theory and the power of authority.

In psychology, the results of the experiment are said to support situational attributions of behavior rather than dispositional attribution. In other words, it seemed the situation caused the participants’ behavior, rather than anything inherent in their individual personalities. In this way, it is compatible with the results of the also-famous Milgram experiment, in which ordinary people fulfilled orders to administer what appeared to be damaging electric shocks to a confederate of the experimenter.

Shortly after the study had been completed, there were bloody revolts at both the San Quentin and Attica prison facilities, and Zimbardo reported his findings on the experiment to the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary.

The experiment was widely criticized as being unethical and bordering on unscientific. Current ethical standards of psychology would not permit such a study to be conducted today. The study would violate the American Psychological Associate Ethics Code, the Canadian Code of Conduct for Research Involving Humans, and the Belmont Report. Critics including Erich Fromm challenged how readily the results of the experiment could be generalized. Fromm specifically writes about how the personality of an individual does in fact affect behavior when imprisoned (using historical examples from the Nazi concentration camps). This runs counter to the study’s conclusion that the prison situation itself controls the individual’s behavior. Fromm also argues that the amount of sadism in the “normal” subjects could not be determined with the methods employed to screen them.

Because it was a field experiment, it was impossible to keep traditional scientific controls. Zimbardo was not merely a neutral observer, but influenced the direction of the experiment as its “superintendent”. Conclusions and observations drawn by the experimenters were largely subjective and anecdotal, and the experiment would be difficult for other researchers to reproduce.

Some of the experiment’s critics argued that participants based their behavior on how they were expected to behave, or modeled it after stereotypes they already had about the behavior of prisoners and guards. In other words, the participants were merely engaging in role-playing. Another problem with the experiment was certain guards, such as “John Wayne”, changed their behavior because of wanting to conform to the behavior that they thought Zimbardo was trying to elicit. In response, Zimbardo claimed that even if there was role-playing initially, participants internalized these roles as the experiment continued.

Additionally, it was criticized on the basis of ecological validity. Many of the conditions imposed in the experiment were arbitrary and may not have correlated with actual prison conditions, including blindfolding incoming “prisoners”, not allowing them to wear underwear, not allowing them to look out of windows and not allowing them to use their names. Zimbardo argued that prison is a confusing and dehumanizing experience and that it was necessary to enact these procedures to put the “prisoners” in the proper frame of mind; however, it is difficult to know how similar the effects were to an actual prison, and the experiment’s methods would be difficult to reproduce exactly so that others could test them.

Some said that the study was too deterministic: reports described significant differences in the cruelty of the guards, the worst of whom came to be nicknamed “John Wayne.” (This guard alleges he started the escalation of events between “guards” and “prisoners” after he began to emulate a character from the Paul Newman film Cool Hand Luke. He further intensified his actions because he was nicknamed “John Wayne” though he was trying to mimic actor Strother Martin who played the role of the sadistic “Captain” in the movie.) Other guards were kinder and often did favors for prisoners. Zimbardo made no attempt to explain or account for these differences.

Also, it has been argued that selection bias may have played a role in the results. Researchers from Western Kentucky University recruited students for a study using an advertisement similar to the one used in the Stanford Prison Experiment, with and without the words “prison life.” It was found that students volunteering for a prison life study possessed dispositions toward abusive behavior.

Lastly, the sample size was very small, with only 24 participants taking part over a relatively short period of time. This means that it is very hard to generalise across a wider scale. Also, the sample selection only contained males, meaning that the sample then is ‘androcentric’ again, leading to a lack of representativeness.

my response
it shows that if you give a person the opportunity to feel superior and to make someone feel inferior, even if it’s just for a day, he would take it… it also shows how self we can be.
and i wanted to point out that it’s exactly like what we did in the jim crow laws before the 60’s. it was all about race and inequality, and the whites were “superior” to african americans. so the whites treated the african american very badly. and the african americans were “helpless” until the 50’s.

One Response to “The Stanford Prison Experiment”

  1. I veiwed the comment on The Stanford Prision Experiment, because from having a brain injury from a car injury of October 1968, I was on medicine in, Morgantown, WV in 1996 desiring to be with a women my age, as I was very lonely. I later did an inapropriate act in public, as I was arrested. I stopped doing this, a year or so later in 1997, and got out of county jail. I went to DRS of WV on South High Street, then Pace-Tec of, Star City, WV and now I’m with, Job Squad, of Bridgeport, WV as I’m supposed to begin a second PASS plan with Social Security Administration, but the date hasn’t been set either by, SSA or Job Squad. Since I’ve been out of jail, trying to get daily part time employment, daily life has been one rediculous schame after another, because of, Christianity, Jesus Christ, and God.

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