The Stanford Prison Experiment

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According to Verywell Mind, “Philip Zimbardo is an influential psychologist best-known for his 1971 Stanford prison experiment. The experiment, [was] conducted in the basement of the Stanford University psychology department. The participants in the study were 24 male college students who were randomly assigned to act either as "guards" or "prisoners" in the mock prison” (Cherry). These students were self-selected, average ordinary people, who volunteered to make some extra cash. They were the chosen select out of 70 participants who answered a series of questions about their family life, social skills, and mental health issues.

Philip Zimbardo conducted this prison experiment so that he could examine the experiences of prison life, and to assess the behaviors of both guards and prisoners and why they clashed. To do this, the fabricated prison was set up in the same way that a real prison would be, with bar doors, cots, and a sink attached to the wall. In order to make the experiment as real as possible, the select prisoners were arrested at their homes, unbeknownst to them, and handcuffed at random. They were then put into police cars and taken down to the station and booked, then immediately following they were transported to the prison wearing blindfolds.

Upon arriving at the prison the prisoners were strip searched and given a numbered prison uniform to change into. The uniform looked like a short oversized t-shirt dress and they were not allowed to wear any underclothes. They also had to wear a cap on their head and a chain on their ankle. Being stripped away from everything that you have, losing your sense of identity, made to wear a dress like uniform to look like everyone else, must have been humiliating for them. I can’t even imagine having to do that, just going through those motions must have felt so surreal to them.

The guards on the other hand were given a military uniform, whistle, sunglasses, and baton. I can imagine the guards feeling good and important just by having possession of those items, as if though they were in charge and could make all the rules. I could also imagine a prisoner not listening or cooperating with a guard and the guard blowing their whistle and/or hitting them with their baton. One of the many advantages that a guard had over a prisoner, was that they only had to work 8 hour days and could go home. Zimbardo also played an active part in the experiment, being both observer and warden, in which later he realizes that he shouldn’t have done both. One of the rules that Zimbardo set out in the beginning of the experiment was that neither guards nor prisoners were allowed to become violent towards each other, however, he did tell the guards to do whatever was necessary to maintain law and order.

An article posted in the New Yorker stated that the guards in this fabricated prison immediately “began humiliating and psychologically abusing the prisoners
within twenty-four hours of the study’s start” even though they were not told to do so. “The prisoners, in turn, became submissive and depersonalized, taking the abuse and saying little in protest” (Konicova). The reason that this happened was because on the first day of the experiment the participants were bored and felt as though they were just there getting payed
to do a job. That's when they decided to really get involved in their roles and to stir things up. During the experiment, prisoners and guards responded in different ways. Some guards became more abusive, yet others remained empathetic. As for the prisoners some of the submissive ones became rebellious.The prisoners were the first to retaliate against the guards. This retaliation
made the guards angry and provoked them into their authority roles making them more aggressive.

The prison experiment was supposed to last fourteen days, however, Zimbardo suddenly
stopped it on the sixth day because of everyone’s drastic behavior. No one objected to what was going on at the prison until the fifth day when Dr. Christina Maslach confronted Zimbardo, after witnessing the young prisoners suffering from both physical and verbal abuse. She then voiced her concerns about the morality of the experiment. Because Zimbardo was too engrossed in his own role as warden, he unfortunately didn’t realize that the abuse had gotten as bad as it did.

According to,StMU History Media, “the purpose behind the entire experiment was to test the theory that personality traits are responsible for abusive behavior that happens inside of prisons. The results? When put in a powerful position, people will always have a tendency to behave in ways that are different than their actions on a regular basis, and when put in a situation where people have absolutely no control in their situation, they become depressed and passive (Looney).

To conclude, what happened at the Stanford Prison was unethical, and guidelines were soon changed in order to protect future participants in similar situations. In order to prevent anything like this from happening again in the future, psychologists were no longer allowed to put anyone in harm’s way, and also had to be upfront and honest with them. Another great accomplishment that this experiment has made, is that it changed the way that prisons are run in the United States.

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The Stanford Prison Experiment. (2020, Nov 02). Retrieved March 5, 2024 , from

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