Philip Zimbardo’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment”

It was 48 years ago when American psychologist Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues conducted one of the most famous social experiments. According to Zimbardo, the purpose of the experiment was to attempt to understand the developments of norms and the effects of social roles in a simulated prison environment. The experiment was a failure but its results gave an insight on social and behavioral psychology and that is the purpose for this research paper is to show how the experiment applies to psychology. When the Experiment was finished it definitely created more questions than it answered, specifically on the darkness that inhabits the human psyche. The ethical implications of this study are studied still to this day in college and undergraduate psychology classes.

The experiment was conducted back in 1971, Philip Zimbardo psychology professor for Stanford University built a three-cell mock called in “Stanford County Jail” it was located in the basement of the university’s psychology building. They recruited 21 psychologically healthy male college students who all answered to a classified ad that stated they were looking for willing participants for a 7-14 day study on prison life that paid 15 dollars a day which was a lot for it being 1971. They randomly assigned 10 of them to be prisoners and the other 11 to be guards. The “prisoners” were “arrested” at their homes, booked and fingerprinted at the local police station and then brought to the “stanford county jail”, (King pp. 451) They were strip searched and given nylon stocking to place over their head to symbolize bald heads, chains on their feet, and a numbered gown that Zimbardo called a “dress”. Zimbardo explains how real male prisoners do not wear dresses so the purpose of that uniform was to emasculate them. They were then placed three to a cell where they spent most of their night and day. The “guards” wore uniforms which included wooden batons and mirrored sunglasses to avoid the prisoners making eye contact. Zimbardo also took part in the experiment, he played the role of the prison superintendent. After 24 hours the prisoners became submissive and depersonalized. They would take abuse with little to no protest. After there were a few disputes that got out of hand between the prisoners and guards violating their agreement against physical force, and when the “superintendent” overlooked the incidents the guards took it as a green light to go ahead and proceed as they were. The lack of feedback could read as a tacit approval.(McLeod) The prisoners were taunted and generally dehumanized. Push-ups were a common form of punishment. The guards began to attack the prisoners with fire extinguishers and act in very sadistic ways , forcing prisoners to stand naked in their cells or allowing them only a bucket to urinate or defecate . On the sixth day Zimbardo terminated the whole experiment in concern for the safety of the students.

The experiment has been criticized for unethical and unscientific methods. Although many experiments are conducted for the sole purpose that they are unethical to show the challenges faced in the particular situation. There were minimal law violations if any at the time, however now we do have laws to prevent psychologist from the possible torment or mental harming a person. One of the violations was the lack of a full description on the consent form which shows that Zimbardo did not take all the events that could occur into consideration. Also The consent they signed said they would not be harmed physically but that was broken. Later in 2008 Zimbardo noted that it was not until much later that he had realized how deep he was in to his prison role he said, “ I was thinking like a superintendent rather than a research psychologist. He claims this is the reason he did not end the study sooner.

The study developed various theories and concepts in social psychology. When the Experiment was finished most of the guards claimed that they were only acting and playing their role the whole time. However, there is evidence that supports the theory that they were reacting as if the situation was real like private conversation that were recorded, the guards worked overtime without being paid or asked too, when the prisoners were introduced to a priest they referred to themselves by their prison name rather than real names, some even asked the priest for help getting out. (Mcleod) Another theory is that the young men acted out their stereotyped views of what prisoners and guards do, and the brutal behavior of the guards was created by the impact of the “prison” environment. Experimental bias is the influence of the experimenter’s expectations on the outcome of the research (King pp.42). Experimental bias is a theory that Gray believes as he states in psychology today, Since they were aware that they being watched by Zimbardo they did not want to disappoint him.

The study created an understanding in the area of social and behavioral psychology especially in regards to power of authority, obedience and situational characteristics over personality. This study affected the way that US prisons are run today for example minors are not housed with adult prisoners before trial to avoid any risk of harm towards the minors. The American Psychological association formed the recognition of ethical guidelines studies now have to undergo and extensive review.

The study has been compared to Milgram’s Obedience Experiment and the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. Stanley Milgram conducted and experiment of obedience is psychology it focused on the conflicts between obedience to authority and personal conscience. Zimbardo was a former classmate of Milgram and wanted to investigate further the impact of situational variables on human behavior. The guards at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. American soldiers were sent as guards to the prison in Guantanamo Bay the conditions at the camp were extremely disturbing two detainees and two prison guards commited suicide They were forced to torture the inmates, having them strip naked, peeing and defecating on themselves. Most of the guards suffered from depression, suicide, insomnia and PTSD.

In conclusion this study shows how individuals adapt to powerful and powerless roles in a situation. people will conform to the social pressure and the roles they are expected to play. the Experiment demonstrates the stimulation of the prison situation caused their sadistic behavior. Their personality traits had nothing to do with it. Humanity is subject to falling into roles of power and the other way around.

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