Stanford prison experiment

Stanford prison experiment is one of the most well-known and important experiments in the field of Social Psychology. The experiment occurred in 1971 at the Stanford American University, in California. Head of the researchers was psychology professor Philip Zimbardo.

Experiment’s concept included some participants enclosed in a mock prison for 14 days (which was situated in University’s basement). The basic goal of Zimbardo’s team was to research possible psychological effects of prison to “guards” and “prisoners”. The research team was expecting that both teams (“guards” and “prisoners”) would be separated in two other categories based on their personalities. In other words, Zimbardo was expecting to see “tough guards” and “compassionate guards”, as well as “obedient prisoners” and “resisters prisoners”.

The twenty four participants were selected with regard to their clear criminal record and absence of any psychological or physical problems. Then, they were randomly separated in two groups (“prisoners” and “guards”) and soon the experiment began. The “guards” started “arresting” the prisoners and they led them to the mock prison. The “prisoners” had been treated as real arrested criminals (i.e., “guards” commanded them to take off their casual clothes and to put on prisoners’ uniforms) in order to feel immediately that they are in a “real” prison where they receive orders.

“Guards” had a specific behavior with regard to the instructions that received to keep the “prisoners” in order, while the “prisoners” knew that they had to obey in orders. Into the following days the “guards” were calling the “prisoners” by using numbers and not their names. “Prisoners” were receiving hazing and psychological pressure by the “guards”. They were often awaken during the night for no reason, they could have been left without food for many hours and moreover, “guards” were often trying to ruin prisoners’ relationships.

From the second day of the experiment, a “prisoner” already started yelling that he cannot stand to continue and that he wanted to get out of the “prison”. Until the fifth day five “prisoners” were close to emotional breakdown as they had believed that they were living in a real prison and that they could never be free again. At the same time, “guards” were being more and more addicted to their roles and they did not want the experiment to finish.

Eventually, Philip Zimbardo stopped the experiment in the sixth day (and not the fourteenth as it was first scheduled) because the participants were not acting upon their roles but they were really feeling that life in prison was actually true. “Guards” developed a violent, strict, cruel and sadistic character as a guard’s uniform let them feel free expressing their roughness to the “prisoners” and moreover, they could not be blamed for any of their actions (as they were just pretending to be something that someone else asked them). Respectively, “prisoners” who were acting with obedience they quickly felt trapped, abandoned, under the pressure of a great authority which could not be controlled by them.

Zimbardo’s experiment is really apocalyptic because twenty four prisoners really forgot that they were part of an experiment (nobody ever said “I quit the experiment”) and most of them believed that they were in a real prison with guards and prisoners. Actually this experiment confirms the hypothesis of many other experiments in the field of Social Psychology that people who have received power can usually adapt a sadistic behavior as they believe they are not responsible for their actions. Responsible is the person or the people who gave them the power and let them use it in a specific way (see “Miligram’s experiment to obedience”). On the other hand, when people should obey a “great authority” – even an irrational one –  maybe at the beginning they will refuse to follow orders and they will not “surrender”, but later they will probably feel trapped, illiberal and totally weak to go against the “authority” who “imprisoned” them.


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