One of the most well-known and infamous psychological experiments is the Stanford Prison Experiment. Every student of psychology or sociology in high school or college has had to read about this experiment. It emerges that men, who considered themselves pacifists turned into monsters and had no issue mistreating other human beings. This realization is well known and often cited as a reason underlying the shambolic nature of the current jail system. Philip Zimbardo presided over the experiment as the “superintendent” of the mock jail in his capacity as the psychology professor in charge of the experiment. The experiment was supposed to last two weeks, but instead only lasted six days for fear that the inmates would be harmed.
One can conjecture why Zimbardo felt the need to justify his project. In 1971, while still a young professor, who had just recently received tenure, he received his Ph.D. in Psychology from Yale University (Zimbardo, p.17). This implies that there were considerable expectations of him, given his obvious abilities within the academic realm. To date, he has never done any single experiment as infamous as the Stanford Prison Experiment. Similarly, his childhood was spent watching people commit crimes and go to jail or prison. He had long held the idea that environment can bring out the evil in people. In addition, it is plausible to note that many of his colleagues in the psychological community found major flaws in his experiment, ranging from lack of controls underlying his choice of the participants (Dunning, 32). Given the skepticism from other psychologists, there is no surprise that Zimbardo felt the need to defend and justify his experiment.
In his account of the experiment, Zimbardo says;
Why didn’t we pursue this research in a real prison? First, prison systems are fortresses of secrecy, closed to impartial observation, and thereby immune to critical analysis from anyone not already part of the correctional authority. Second, in any real prison, it is impossible to separate what each individual brings into the prison from what the prison brings out in each person (Zimbardo, p.39).
While there is some justification in not using an actual prison, Zimbardo’s defense is weak. He speaks of separating what each person brings into the prison versus what the prison brings out in each person, yet he took purposeful actions to influence and bring out specific parts of the men used in his experiment. Zimbardo’s influence on the experiment begins with the choice of dress for the guards and inmates. He constructs the guards to wear sunglasses to cover their eyes, and hands them batons, which signifies the acceptance and the possibility of the baton’s use.
The inmates are forced to wear dresses and no underwear. Sunglasses are not a normal part of a uniform for a guard, and inmates wear jumpsuits, not dresses, and they do wear underwear. In these actions, Zimbardo planted seeds for how the men would react. While he could not use or observe an actual prison facility, he could have been more true to the actual prison experience in this experiment, instead of having to justify his choices later to try and maintain the validity of the experiment.
In further justification for his influence on the experiment, Zimbardo says:
“Real” prisoners typically report feeling powerless, arbitrarily controlled, dependent, frustrated, hopeless, anonymous, dehumanized, and emasculated. It was not possible, pragmatically or ethically, to create such chronic states in volunteer subjects who realize they are in an experiment for only a short time. Racism, physical brutality, indefinite confinement, and enforced homosexuality were not features of our mock prison. But we did try to reproduce those elements of the prison experience that seemed most fundamental (Zimbardo, p.49).
This paragraph is used to justify referring to the prisoners as numbers instead of by their names. Zimbardo also instructed the prisoners to wear stocking caps, making them all look as similar as possible. The gowns, which the men wore with their lack of underwear, forced them to move more effeminately. The prisoners were also forced to ask the guards for permission to do even basic activities, such as use the restroom. While such arrangement had the desired dehumanizing affect, it was not a reflection of the reality of prison.
The faux guards were given no training at all. To his readers, Zimbardo tries to justify the lack of training by writing:
Although our guards received no formal training from us in how to be guards, for the most part they moved with apparent ease into their roles. Our guards were told they must maintain “law and order” in this prison, that they were responsible for handling any trouble that might break out, and they were cautioned about the seriousness and potential dangers of the situation they were about to enter. Surprisingly, in most prison systems, “real” guards are not given much more psychological preparation or adequate training( Zimbardo, p.54).
Perhaps “real” guards are not given much more training, but they are mentored by more experienced guards and given on the job training. Instead, the men in the experiment were allowed to draw on their preconceived notions of what a guard is like from movies or television shows they had seen, and were not given any other guidance. In fact, when they came up with ridiculous notions, such as trying to move the “prisoners” to the real jail because they thought there would be a break in to release the prisoners, Zimbardo did nothing to discourage them, but instead helped them make the appropriate phone calls. Once again, Zimbardo defends his actions with faulty logic.
Zimbardo wants his readers to believe that he is surprised that those involved with the experiment lost sight that they were just involved in an experiment by underscoring that
Can it really be, you wonder, that intelligent, educated volunteers could have lost sight of the reality that they were merely acting a part in an elaborate game that would eventually end? There are many indication not only that they did, but that, in addition, so did we and so did other apparently sensible, responsible adults (Zimbardo, p.42).
Zimbardo’s use of ‘we’ to include himself as one of those who lost sight of the experiment, he tries to justify the extremes to which the experiment went before shutting down. Unfortunately, what he says in the paragraph following the reflection quoted above proves how unlikely was the fact that he ever lost sight of the reality of just running experiment. Zimbardo points out that when one of the prisoners was going to leave, and he was subsequently made to feel he was wrong to leave because of what the other prisoners thought of him. Zimbardo says that the prisoner had to convince him he was not really a prisoner. If, as Zimbardo tells us, he lost sight that this exercise was just an experiment, he would not have tried to convince the man he was just in an experiment. Zimbardo’s interference is in direct contrast to his claim of losing sight of the experiment. Although the necessity of his interference does validate that the young male volunteers truly did lose sight of the reality that they were just taking part in and experiment.
Zimbardo defends his choice of subjects saying, “The pathology in this study cannot be reasonably attributed in preexisting personality differences of the subjects that option being eliminated by our selection procedures and random assignment” (Zimbardo, p.57). The issue with this statement is that the subjects answered an ad that specifically said the participants were seeking young men to take part in a “psychological study of prison life”. First of all, those who answered the ad were willing to be part of the experiment involving prisons. In this ad’s wording, Zimbardo was already preparing those who replied for being controlled somewhat. The wording of the ad gave participants time to create their own preconceived notions of what was to come.
Zimbardo used a consistent justification device in his report of the happenings of the Stanford Prison Experiment. This pattern of justification was necessary for him to use since much of his methodology is unscientific. Not only that, he took specific actions to affect the activities of both the “guards” and “prisoners”. While he defends his experiment in an effort to validate the experiment, the rhetorical method falls flat and leaves the reader questioning the validity of Zimbardo’s actions. In the end, seeking validation for his choices and actions is a pathetic attempt to validate what will probably be the most infamous project he is ever involved in.
Dunning, Brian. What You Didn't Know about the Stanford Prison Experiment, 13 June 2015 Web. May 27, 2008 http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4102
Zimbardo, Philip. (2013). Philip G. Zimbardo. Social Psychology Network. 13 June 2015. Web. January 17, 2013 http://zimbardo.socialpsychology.org/