The Stanford Prison Experiment : the Relationship between the Guards and Prisoners


The study focuses on an experiment carried out at the Stanford University aimed at studying the relationship between guards and prisoners. The psychology professor, Philip Zimbardo’s 1973 research was to investigate how the struggle for power between prisoners and guards has lingering psychological effects that influence power, authority, and group behavior. The US Office of Naval Research launched the investigation to determine causes of continued conflict between the guards and inmates in the Marine and Navy. The researchers enlisted twenty-four volunteers who were randomly assigned to be guards and prisoners. Freedom from crimes, right medical conditions, or psychological issues that would interfere with the outcome of the intended experiment formed the basis of selecting volunteers. The results of this experiment focused on how the superintendent and guards were corrupted by their positions of power and authority influencing their cruelty. Moreover, the findings also point out how a group can affect notable change as compared to an individual. Keywords: power, authority, and group behavior.

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Ideally, the psychology professor, Philip Zimbardo’s 1973 experiment was unique in some ways. According to studies, the experiment was an attempt to investigate how the struggle for power between prisoners and guards has lingering psychological effects. The United States Office of Naval Research funded the investigation to determine the reasons behind continued conflicts between inmates and guards in the United States Marine and Navy. Observably, the study was carried out at the Stanford University, providing the basis for its name. The Stanford prison experiment took place in six days with the professor enlisting students to pose as both guards and prisoners. Therefore, the study analyzes the Stanford Prison Experiment in the light of its findings on power, authority, and group behavior.

The Experiment

According to McLeod (2017), the fact that researchers wanted to comprehend how the participants would respond when placed in a replicated prison environment prompted the research. Moreover, Stanford University’s basement was meant to house the fake prison. Zimbardo and his colleagues proceeded to set up the simulated prison in the psychology building. According to McLeod (2017), ‘the study comprised 24 male college students (chosen from 75 volunteers) who were paid $15 per day to take part in the experiment.” The students were carefully selected from a large group of volunteers who were free from criminal backgrounds, medical conditions, or psychological issues that would interfere with the outcome of the intended experiment. McLeod (2017) explains how the mock prison had three cells, which were six by nine feet. Each cell housed a maximum of three prisoners and had three cots. The other rooms in the basement were allocated to the guards and warden, which acted as their offices and break room. A small space was assigned as solitary confinement, with another similar area serving as the prison yard. The volunteers were not at liberty to choose which role they would play. Instead, they were randomly selected to be either a prisoner or guard. By randomly selecting the participants, predetermination of their characters in the experiment would be curbed (McLeod, 2017). Prisoners were to spend an entire day in the faux prison during the study period (McLeod, 2017). Even though the participants were getting paid 15 dollars a day, the condition made it seemed like an actual prison. The guards worked in teams of three, changing shifts after eight hours. During the experiment, researchers were able to examine the behavior of all participants using hidden microphones and cameras (McLeod, 2017).

Findings of the Stanford Prison Experiment

The experiment was initially meant to last for two weeks. However, it was discontinued after only six days owing to abuse, which led to stress and anxiety. Merely hours into the experiment, some of the guards began asserting their authority by harassing prisoners (McLeod, 2017). Inmates were woken up at 2:30 AM for the count. The counts purposed to acquaint prisoners with their numbers. Besides, it presented the guards with regular opportunities to employ control over the prisoners. The guards taunted inmates with petty demands and insults, giving them meaningless tasks to achieve. Prisoners were dehumanized in various ways especially through push-ups. The guards would step on their backs while performing the exercise or forced other inmates to sit on their backs while doing the push-ups (McLeod, 2017). The guards’ inhumane treatment originated from their positions, which carried power and authority. During the experiment, Zimbardo who played the warden is seen tolerating the guards’ behavior in his prison. In his own words, he explains that only a handful of people were able to resist the temptations of power and dominance while maintaining a trace of morality, and that he was not in that noble class (McLeod, 2017).

Throughout the experiment, prisoners resisted. When placed in solitary confinement and isolation, they were utterly ineffective. However, when the inmates came together and worked as a group, they gained momentum as their resistance proved more effective. The first day proved victorious for inmates leaving the guards in a state of chaos (McLeod, 2017). Realizing the looming defeat, the guards had to call in reinforcements. The guards who were on night shift volunteered to help the day shift in breaking the rebellion. By doubling their numbers, they broke into their cells and placed the leaders in solitary confinement. Special treatment was offered to those who did not participate in the rebellion in a bid to deter future revolts (McLeod, 2017).


The Stanford prison experiment was carried out in an attempt to try to understand the relationship between the guards and prisoners. The warden and guards had power and authority. Nonetheless, their morality and decency faltered in the presence of such elements, bringing out their inhumane nature. Another finding of this research was the strength in numbers. The prisoners were able to carry out an effective rebellion by working together. However, when the guards also volunteered to increase their numbers, they were able to put down the resistance. Therefore, the experiment’s findings proved that power and authority could quickly corrupt an individual’s morals and humanity, feeding their worst impulses. Besides, it shows that there is strength in numbers.

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The Stanford Prison Experiment : the Relationship between the Guards and Prisoners. (2021, Mar 04). Retrieved February 7, 2023 , from

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