The Stanford Prison Experiment

A Closer Look at Zimbardo's Infamous Prison Study

The Stanford Prison Experiment
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In 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues set out to create an experiment that looked at the impact of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. Known as the Stanford Prison Experiment, the study went on to become one of the best-known in psychology's history.

Zimbardo, a former classmate of Stanley Milgram (who is best-known for his famous obedience experiment, was interested in expanding upon Milgram's research.

He wanted to investigate further the impact of situational variables on human behavior.

The researchers wanted to know how the participants would react when placed in a simulated prison environment.

"Suppose you had only kids who were normally healthy, psychologically and physically, and they knew they would be going into a prison-like environment and that some of their civil rights would be sacrificed. Would those good people, put in that bad, evil place—would their goodness triumph?" Zimbardo explained in one interview.

The Participants

The researchers set up a mock prison in the basement of Standford University's psychology building and then selected 24 undergraduate students to play the roles of both prisoners and guards. The participants were chosen from a larger group of 70 volunteers because they had no criminal background, lacked psychological issues, and had no significant medical conditions.

The volunteers agreed to participate during a one to two-week period in exchange for $15 a day.

The Setting and Procedures

The simulated prison included three six by nine-foot prison cells.

Each cell held three prisoners and included three cots. Other rooms across from the cells were utilized for the jail guards and warden.

One tiny space was designated as the solitary confinement room, and yet another small room served as the prison yard.

The 24 volunteers were then randomly assigned to either the prisoner group or the guard group. Prisoners were to remain in the mock prison 24-hours a day during the study. Guards were assigned to work in three-man teams for eight-hour shifts. After each shift, guards were allowed to return to their homes until their next shift. Researchers were able to observe the behavior of the prisoners and guards using hidden cameras and microphones.

Results of the Stanford Prison Experiment

While the Stanford Prison Experiment was originally slated to last 14 days, it had to be stopped after just six due to what was happening to the student participants. The guards became abusive, and the prisoners began to show signs of extreme stress and anxiety.

While the prisoners and guards were allowed to interact in any way they wanted, the interactions were hostile or even dehumanizing. The guards began to behave in ways that were aggressive and abusive toward the prisoners while the prisoners became passive and depressed.

Five of the prisoners began to experience severe negative emotions, including crying and acute anxiety and had to be released from the study early.

Even the researchers themselves began to lose sight of the reality of the situation. Zimbardo, who acted as the prison warden, overlooked the abusive behavior of the jail guards until graduate student Christina Maslach voiced objections to the conditions in the simulated prison and the morality of continuing the experiment.

"Only a few people were able to resist the situational temptations to yield to power and dominance while maintaining some semblance of morality and decency; obviously, I was not among that noble class," Zimbardo later wrote in his book The Lucifer Effect.

What Do the Results of the Stanford Prison Experiment Mean?

According to Zimbardo and his colleagues, the Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrates the powerful role that the situation can play in human behavior. Because the guards were placed in a position of power, they began to behave in ways they would not usually act in their everyday lives or other situations. The prisoners, placed in a situation where they had no real control, became passive and depressed.

Criticisms of the Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment is frequently cited as an example of unethical research. The experiment could not be replicated by researchers today because it fails to meet the standards established by numerous ethical codes, including the Ethics Code of the American Psychological Association. Zimbardo acknowledges the ethical problems with the study, suggesting that "although we ended the study a week earlier than planned, we did not end it soon enough."

Other critics suggest that the study lacks generalizability due to a variety of factors. The unrepresentative sample of participants (mostly white and middle-class males) makes it difficult to apply the results to a wider population.

The study is also criticized for its lack of ecological validity. While the researchers did their best to recreate a prison setting, it is simply not possible to perfectly mimic all of the environmental and situational variables of prison life.

Despite some of the criticism, the Stanford Prison Experiment remains an important study in our understanding of how the situation can influence human behavior. The study recently garnered attention after reports of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses in Iraq became known. Many people, including Zimbardo himself, suggest that the abuses at Abu Ghraib might be real-world examples of the same results observed in Zimbardo's experiment.

The Stanford Prison Experiment: 40 Years Later

In 2011, the Stanford Alumni Magazine featured a fascinating retrospective of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment in honor of the experiment’s 40th anniversary. The article contained interviews with several people involved in the experiment, including Zimbardo and other researchers as well as some of the participants in the study.

Richard Yacco was one of the prisoners in the experiment and now works as a public school teacher. He offered some interesting insights into his experience:

"One thing that I thought was interesting about the experiment was whether, if you believe society has assigned you a role, do you then assume the characteristics of that role? I teach at an inner city high school in Oakland. These kids don't have to go through experiments to witness horrible things. But what frustrates my colleagues and me is that we are creating great opportunities for these kids, we offer great support for them, why are they not taking advantage of it? Why are they dropping out of school? Why are they coming to school unprepared? I think a big reason is what the prison study shows--they fall into the role their society has made for them.

Participating in the Stanford Prison Experiment is something I can use and share with students. This was one week of my life when I was a teenager and yet here it is, 40 years later, and it's still something that had enough of an impact on society that people are still interested in it. You never know what you're going to get involved in that will turn out to be a defining moment in your life."

In 2015, the experiment became the topic of a feature film titled The Stanford Prison Experiment that dramatized the events of the 1971 study. You can view the official trailer for the film here.

Sources:

Interview with Philip Zimbardo. The Believer. Found online at http://www.believermag.com/issues/200909/?read=interview_zimbardo

O'Toole, K. (1997, Jan. 8). The Stanford Prison Experiment: Still powerful after all these years. The Stanford News Service. Found online at http://www.stanford.edu/dept/news/pr/97/970108prisonexp.html

The Stanford Prison Experiment:A Simulation Study of the Psychology of Imprisonment Conducted at Stanford University. Found online at http://www.prisonexp.org/

Haney, C., Banks, W. C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1973). Study of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison. Naval Research Reviews, 9, 1–17. Washington, DC: Office of Naval Research

Zimbardo, P. (2007). The Lucifer effect: Understanding how good people turn evil. New York, NY: Random House.

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