The Stanford Prison experiment was a psychological study conducted at Stanford University to determine how becoming a guard or a prisoner in a prison environment affected the behavior of a participant. The rationale of the experiment was to critique the ‘dispositional hypothesis’, which maintained that prisoners and guards behave in typical fashions because of their inherent nature (McGreal, 2013).
On August 14, 1971, Zimbardo laid down the ground rules for the guards. He made it clear that the guards could not hit the prisoners. However, they could instill feelings of boredom, frustration amongst the prisoners. The prisoners would be under constant surveillance. The next day, the local police physically arrested those assigned the role of prisoners with felonies. The prisoners went through the standard police procedures of fingerprinting and booking for charges. They were then blindfolded and transported to the prison created at Stanford University for the purpose of the experiment. In the prison, the prisoners were stripped, de-loused and put into prisoners’ uniforms. They were symbolically chained on one leg for realism (Zimbardo, 1971).
The prisoners, recalling their experience of the experiment, went through the real-life play-acting of becoming prisoners and took the role-playing as their job as participants of an experiment on the first day. However, as the experiment progressed, the guards and prisoners took on their roles with increased realism and immersion (Zimbardo, 1971).
The guards routinely exercised control over the prisoners by subjecting them to head counts and physical checks at odd hours of the day. In the first head count, the prisoners were not fully immersed in their role. However, on the morning of the second day, the guards were faced with a rebellion from prisoners in Cell Number One, who had barricaded themselves inside their cell by putting their beds against the door. The prisoners began to taunt the guards. The guards responded by calling in reinforcements and putting down the rebellion, amidst loud protestations from the Prisoner 861, the leader of the rebellion. The guards put Prisoner 861 into solitary confinement. Prisoner 5704 had his feet chained together (Zimbardo, 1971).
The guards realized that with a shift of three guards at any one time, maintaining control over nine prisoners would be difficult. As physical force was not allowed, the guards decided to use psychological tactics to control the prisoners. They set up a ‘privilege cell’, and put prisoners least involved in the rebellion into the cell. These prisoners got their uniforms back, were allowed to wash themselves, had their beds to sleep on and were given special food. The privileged prisoners, however, refused the special food in solidarity with their comrades (Zimbardo, 1971).
In an endeavor to increase their control, the guards made the prisoners do increased physical activity, subjected them to more strip searches, and punishing them arbitrarily. The prisoners were made to relieve themselves in a bucket after the cells were locked in the evening. The guards often refused the prisoners’ requests to empty the bucket at night. As a result, the cells began to smell. Prisoner 8612 felt the treatment was excessive, and opted out. On Day three, when the parents of the prisoners visited them, the prisoners were cleaned up and given a hot meal, to avoid any misgivings from the parents. After the visit, the guards reacted to a rumor that Prisoner 8612 would return and attempt to get his fellow prisoners released. The guards therefore relocated the prison to the basement of the University, and called in additional guards. On Day Four, the guards increased the level of harassment and humiliation of the prisoners. The prisoners by now were conforming to their role as prisoners. They were no more taking the experiment as a fun activity. Prisoner 819 was denounced by his mates as a bad prisoner, resulting in feelings of depression in Prisoner 819. Prisoner 819 was made to leave the experiment, after he was reminded about his real identity and the context of the experiment (Zimbardo, 1971).
Prisoner 416 was inducted as a replacement to Prisoner 819. Prisoner 416 entered the experiment when its realism was at its maximum. He revolted by refusing to eat. His mates refused to support him. The guards exploited the dissention by extending their control over the prisoners. By then, the prisoners had displayed three ways to cope with their feelings of powerlessness. Many reacted passively by breaking down emotionally. Others became model prisoners. There were, correspondingly, three types of guards: the good guards who felt sorry for the prisoners, fair guards who followed the rules, and sadistic guards who degraded the prisoners. The experiment was terminated on Day Six on objections posed by Christina Maslach who was invited as an interviewer (Zimbardo, 1971).
The Stanford Prison Experiment claims to demonstrate that it is the environment where people find themselves that dictates their behavior. Perfectly normal youth behaved in opposite fashions as prisoners and guards in the immersive environment of the experiment. The experiment highlighted how obedience could be instilled if the environment had institutional support that demanded obedience. Normative social influence was displayed, as prisoners and guards behaved in manners to be accepted by their fellow role-players. This further led to conformity to assigned roles. The guards, who exercised dehumanizing control over the prisoners, demonstrate the pathology of power. As the guards lose their humanity, they could also be seen as society’s prisoners, locked in a symbiotic relationship with the prisoners (Whitbourne, 2013).
The video is a stark reminder of the fact that under pressure, human beings tend to break out of the veneer of civilization and outwardly exhibited character. The study evokes pessimism regarding the strength of character of human beings when pitched against hostile situations.
Real life events mirror the prognosis of the Stanford Prison Experiment. The guards in Abu Ghraib prison lost their sense of humanity conducted depraved acts against prisoners. The prisoners themselves broke down and lost all sense of humanity in the Abu Ghraib Prison. A similar situation was in evidence in Nazi Germany, where guards in concentration camps performed tasks that they would not have performed as peacetime citizens.
Zimbardo, P. (1971). Stanford prison experiment. Retrieved June 25, 2015, from http://www.schooltube.com/video/237e7769aa970bcec446/Zimbardo-Stanford-Prison-Experiment
McGreal, S. (2013). Individual differences in the Stanford Prison Experiment. Retrieved June 26, 2015, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/unique-everybody-else/201309/individual-differences-in-the-stanford-prison-experiment
Whitbourne, S.K. (2013). The rarely told true story of Zimbardo’s prison experiment. Retrieved June 26, 2015, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201307/the-rarely-told-true-story-zimbardo-s-prison-experiment