The Stanford Prison Experiment

Stanford Prison Experiment. Photo via google under labeled for reuse.

Stanford Prison Experiment. Photo via google under labeled for reuse.

Sko’ Cardinals!
Stanford University is known for their outstanding academics and insanely difficult admission. However, the majority of the population has never heard of the Stanford prison experiment. In August of 1971, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo led an experiment with volunteer college students. Zimbardo wanted to investigate how normal, everyday people would adapt to roles of prisoners and guards in a prison situation. The college professor wanted to find out if the actions of guards in real prisons were due to the personalities of the guards, or the situations that they were placed in.

This experiment was conducted in a psychology building basement. They converted it so it had individual rooms that acted as jail cells. Zimbardo put an advertisement up and 70 people applied. He then interviewed them and eliminated people with mental or psychological problems. He finished with 24 male students, and they were paid $15 a day. Two applicants dropped out so there ended up being 10 prisoners and 11 guards, chosen randomly. Guards worked in groups of three for a time of 8 hours.

Zimbardo wanted to keep the experiment as realistic as possible, so the experiment included real-life arresting, booking, and finger-printing. The “inmates” were then moved to the “prison.” The prisoners were given clothes, and the guards were given uniforms. The prisoners were also issued ID numbers instead of names, to make prisoners feel anonymous.

The college professor instructed guards to do whatever they thought was necessary, but they could not become physical.

Within the first 24 hours, some guards became physical, despite the rules. The guards often made prisoners do pushups as a form of punishment or force them into solitary confinement (a small dark room).  This caused prisoners to rebel. When they rebelled, the prisoners “removed their stocking caps, ripped off their numbers, and barricaded themselves inside the cells by putting their beds against the door. The guards retaliated by using a fire extinguisher which shot a stream of skin-chilling carbon dioxide, and they forced the prisoners away from the doors. Next, the guards broke into each cell, stripped the prisoners naked, and took the beds out. The ringleaders of the prisoner rebellion were placed into solitary confinement. After this, the guards generally began to harass and intimidate the prisoners.”

These events went on for a few days, and eventually, prisoners began to turn on one another and began to agree with the guards. One prisoner could not handle the stress and had to be let out on the third day.

However, on the other hand, there were a few guards that did not agree with the violence, so they would try to occupy themselves with other peaceful jobs, such as running errands.

The guards continued their cruel actions, and the experiment had to be stopped on day six, eight days short of what Zimbardo had initially planned.

Even Zimbardo agreed that he had been adapting to the experiment himself. He stated in an interview that “[he] realized how far into [his] prison role [he] was at that point — that [he] was thinking like a prison superintendent rather than a research psychologist.” Both prisoners and guards could not believe the way they had acted during the experiments. Zimbardo came to the conclusion that some guards had just been acting to “fit in,” but in some cases, people were de-individualized. Zimbardo says that this is where “people become so immersed in the norms of the group that they lose their sense of identity and personal responsibility.”