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About the Stanford Prison Experiment

What happens when you put good people in an evil place? Does humanity win over evil, or does evil triumph? These are some of the questions we posed in this dramatic simulation of prison life conducted in 1971 at Stanford University.

- Stanford Prison Experiment

The Experiment

A pack of young adults on one side of the bars were wearing sunglasses and uniforms, trooping around in shiny boots while holding bulky clubs. On the other side of the bars, young adults were wearing uncomfortably baggy smocks with numbers on them, chains on their feet and stockings over their heads. A prison. A fake prison soon to become real.

This was a famous psychology study, the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) that was conducted in 1971 at the Stanford University psychology department, which they referred to as the Stanford County Prison in the experiment. The experiment was hosted by Professor Philip Zimbardo for around one week, and was conducted on 24 volunteer male university students who were from the middle class and were healthy and normal by the experimenter’s standards. They were split into two groups: a group of prisoners and a group of prison guards. Everyone was given outfits tailored to their role to simulate the feeling of a prison.

The students were brought into the prison by a simulation of an actual arrest, putting them immediately into a “state of mild shock.” Once inside the prison, they were stripped of their clothing and belongings in an effort to humiliate them, just like real guards to real prisoners.

The guard equipment provided power and authority, and their sunglasses prevented others from seeing their emotions, giving more of a sense of anonymity and decreasing a sense of self identity, thus making guards feel more freedom in their positions. The smock and chains gave the sense of oppression, and the stockings took away the “prisoner’s” sense of identity, as it mimics the effect of shaving off one’s hair. Referring to a prisoner by their “prisoner ID number” is used to make them feel like a real prisoner, instead of a student roleplaying a prisoner. The experimenters had a video camera in the little space, and they observed as the students interacted in their roles. The guards had no limitations, and were given absolute power to punish and oppress the prisoners. The prisoners were treated like real prisoners, with massively reduced privacy and civil rights.

At first, the experiment was adequately humane, as the prisoners didn’t consider themselves prisoners yet, and the guards were hesitant to use their power. But it did not take long for the humiliation to start. On the second morning, there was a prisoner rebellion, which made the guards worried of what’s going on. But the experimenter’s told the guards to deal with it on their own, since they have the weapons and the power to do so. After that, prisoners were regularly physically punished with push-ups and jumping jacks. They were psychologically tortured and further humiliated by being locked up in isolated dark cells known as “privilege cells.” They were made to do repetitive work for long hours a day such as cleaning the washroom and toilets with their bare hands. Later in the process, they were even requested to perform pornographic acts by the guards. The guards had arbitrary control over the prison, under the permission of Professor Zimbardo who acted the role of a prison Warden.

The guards’ aggression increased day by day as the idea of being in absolute control grew on them. As a result of these extreme guard behaviours, some of the prisoners became severely traumatized. Some were falling sick, which partially led to the premature end of the experiment. The first early release was for a student who went through “acute emotional disturbance,” who screamed and cried uncontrollably. At the end, a Priest was brought in to counsel with each prisoner individually, and there was one prisoner who refused to speak with the priest. This prisoner was also in a very bad state of mental health at this point, feeling sick and crying but still desperate to prove that he was a good prisoner.

There were three types of guards that were observed. The first type were following the strict prison rules while in their role. They were harsh but didn’t go over the boundaries of the experiment. The second type of guards were comparably nice, and tried to help the prisoners. The last type were the ones who pushed the limits, and were “hostile, arbitrary, and inventive in their forms of prisoner humiliation.”

The Conclusion

It turns out that both the guards and prisoners have melted themselves into their roles to the point where they could not distinguish between role-playing and reality. Professor Zimbardo put together and published a book in 2007 titled The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, which details the conclusion he drew from this experiment.

The main leading question of this experiment was that he wanted to find how the good people turned into the perpetrators of evil. The main conclusion that was drawn from the SPE was that normal people will very quickly adapt to the social role that they are expected to play. When they are put in a position of absolute authority, they will take the authority and act brutally, which is not something that they would do in their normal lives. When people are put under oppression, they will conform to that as well. A lot of this behaviour is contributed by the deindividualization of the guards, which reduces their guilt, and the helplessness felt by the prisoners as they obeyed all the oppression because they felt “powerless to resist”. So when you put good people in evil positions, they will become evil.

As the SPE is one of the most famous psychological experiments, it is also a very controversial one. There are many replications of this experiment, which had results that differed from the SPE, and many different voices that serve to debunk the results of this experiment.

Featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.

Article Author: Ivy Sun

Article Editors: Victoria Huang, Sherilyn Wen