Stanford Prison Experiment
In the early 1970s the US navy and marine corps were becoming increasingly aware that something was wrong with the prison system. It was plain to see that poor conditions, violence, brutality, and dehumanization were normal occurrences within prisons.
They tasked Dr. Philip Zimbardo with discovering whether it was due to the unique aspects of the prison population – people who have demonstrated disregard for social order and are now held against their will, a result of a “guard mentality” that engenders inhumane treatment of prisoners, or if it was function of the system itself.
The study itself was conducted at Stanford University. Dr. Zimbardo and his research group gathered college student volunteers to take part in a prison simulation. The participants were randomly chosen to be guards or prisoners. The participants were all male, relatively healthy and stable with no criminal background. They agreed to participate for a 7-14 day period and received $15 per day as compensation.
The experiment was conducted in a 35-foot section of a basement of the psychology building. Each 6×9 cell only contained a cot for the prisoners. The guards lived in very different conditions. They were separated from the prisoners with rest and relaxation areas as well as a variety of other comforts.
There were 9 prisoners (with 3 alternates) and 9 guards (with 3 alternates). Zimbardo took on the role of superintendent and a research assistant acted as warden of the prison. Guards were given guard outfits along with wooden batons and mirrored sunglasses to prevent eye contact. They were instructed not to cause physical harm or withhold food, but could otherwise make the prisoners feel uncomfortable, bored, and controlled by the system.
The prisoners were given uncomfortable smocks and a chain around one ankle. They were to be referred to by their assigned numbers on their uniform rather than their names. The prisoners went through ordinary booking procedures and were searched prior to going to the mock jail.
At first the proceedings were fairly uneventful. The prisoners were bored and the guards played their role, but nothing really happened. However, on the second day, the prisoners in one cell blockaded their door and refused to follow the guards instructions. Guards from other shifts volunteered to work extra hours to quell the revolt. Without being told to do so, the guards even went as far as to attack the prisoners with fire extinguishers.
Of their own volition, the guards decided to use psychological tactics to better control the inmates as it was a challenge to manage them with only 3 guards. They established a “privilege cell” where prisoners who were not involved in the riot were given special treatment. After 36 hours, one prisoner began to exhibit altered behavior. Zimbardo described that:
8612 then began to act crazy, to scream, to curse, to go into a rage that seemed out of control. It took quite a while before we became convinced that he was really suffering and that we had to release him.
From here things elevated. The guards began doing role call and having the prisoners recite their numbers a a means of harassment. They also began to enforce stricter rules by only allowing the prisoners to relieve themselves into a bucket in their cells. As punishment the guards did not let them empty the bucket. They also would remove the prisoner’s mattresses and make them sleep on concrete or be forced to be naked as a method of degradation.
Some guards became increasingly cruel to the point of sadism during the experimental process. At one point, a stand by prisoner was brought in and expressed concern about the treatment of other prisoners. He was treated to a stay in solitary confinement: a dark closet, which the guards instructed the prisoners to repeatedly bang on and shout.
It wasn’t only the guards that internalized their role. The prisoners also began to act in line with their assigned personas. They took the rules seriously and some began siding with the guards against other prisoners who broke the rules.
The experiment was terminated only after Christina Maslach, a graduate student and girlfriend of Zimbardo objected to the conditions of the prison when she was brought in to interview the participants. Incredibly, Zimbardo indicated that of more than 50 people who had observed the experiment, Maslach was the only one who questioned its morality. When the experiment was halted after 6 days, the majority of the guards were upset that the experience was over.
How could a university study get so out of control? How could these participants, who know they were in an experiment, commit such horrendous acts toward their fellow students?
The results of this study support a situational attribution of behavior rather than a dispositional one, indicating that the circumstances and situation at hand are more influential over how someone acts as compared to their innate characteristics. Remember that these students were randomly assigned. The bad apples of the group didn’t naturally fall into the guard role. Rather it was the guard role itself that brought out the darker side of the participants.
While clearly unethical, this study did bring about some positive results. It influenced the way that prisons are now run and also established ethical standards for university research in which institutional review boards must review proposed research involving human subjects to protect their rights.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this specially Halloween episode of the hardcore self help podcast. I will be back next week with a normal episode, but I do have to say that this has been a lot of fun. Take care of yourselves and I will see you next week.