The Stanford Prison Experiment


Micole Abdelhak, Staff Writer

“Good” people appointed into a position of oppression will not use their power for bad. At least this is what many choose to believe. People donate to charity, hold the elevator door, tell white lies, and much more to be able to label themselves as a “good person.” No one wants to believe they have the capacity for blatant and destructive wrong. They want to believe that it is a choice to be good. These beliefs are what the participants of The Stanford Prison Experiment adhered to. Or at least, before their participation in this experiment. 

On August 14th, 1971, Philip Zimbardo, American psychologist and Stanford University professor, set out to test his hypothesis that the main cause of abusive behavior in prisons is not the inherent personality of prisoners and guards, but rather the corrupting effects the position of power can have. The experiment’s findings would later prove Zimbardo to be terribly right, and The Stanford Prison Experiment would become one of the most well known and controversial studies in history. 

Zimbardo selected undergraduate volunteers in order to simulate a prison-like environment. He divided the volunteers into the roles of prisoners and guards, paying everyone $15 a day. Every volunteer was a mentally and physically sound, white, and middle-class man, none of whom knew each other before the experiment. Nine participants were deemed “guards” and Nine were deemed “prisoners.”

To the prisoners’ surprise, they were “arrested” for armed robbery and burglary, handcuffed, escorted into a police car, and brought to the Stanford University psychology department, where they were fingerprinted and put into a cell. In order to best simulate a real prisoner’s experience, the participants were not notified about when, where, or whether they would be in a simulated arrest.  

The prisoners were kept in the prison overnight and subject to the guards. These guards essentially could do whatever they wanted to the prisoners as long as they weren’t physically violent. They were actually instructed to do whatever it took to maintain order. While there would theoretically be restrictions placed upon guards of real prisons, the fact that there were few regulations in the experiment demonstrates the contemporary problem of extreme abuse and neglect in real prisons. Within 24 hours, the college boys who were playing the part of “guard” had resorted to cruelty and abuse in their treatment of the prisoners. Once again, these boys had no record of an abusive nature before the experiment, and they were all mentally sound. However, they used the dehumanizing tactics of taunting the prisoners, cursing and yelling at them, and forcing them to strip naked. The prisoners were also very heavily deprived of sleep. 

Some prisoners tried to retaliate, one going on a hunger strike. However the guards always brutally stuck back. This specific inmate was punished by being forced into solitary confinement: in this case, a pitch black, cramped closet. 

As the guards became more barbaric in their treatment, the prisoners became more submissive as they realized there was no way to stop the abuse. These boys who all had distinct personalities and weren’t explicitly bad people had been stripped of their character in just six days. It took only six days after the title of guard was given to half and prisoner to the other for these boys to all perfectly fill the roles of the abusive guard and submissive prisoner, with the only thing separating the two being the toss of a coin. 

Although the experiment was expected to last for two weeks, the guards had become so terrible to the prisoners that it was stopped after a mere six days. The participants who embodied the role of the prisoner had completely internalized their role and went on to experience extreme levels of anxiety and PTSD after the experiment. Many of the participants who had been the guards reported that they never believed they would be capable of such cruelty. It was only after the experiment that they realized the extent to which they had let the simulation of the prison take them. 

The experiment’s findings are controversial not only because it was unethical but also because it was flawed in its set up. There was no control group and Zimbardo himself played the part of the warden, stripping the experiment of its objectivity. Additionally the experiment was never replicated and therefore many argue its findings today. However, in a way, Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment has been replicated. Perhaps it is replicated by police brutality, Holocaust Concentration Camps, or modern day abusive prisons. 

Even though the experiment was extremely flawed, what can be learned is how easily a normal person can be turned into a tyrannical oppressor. These guards who would never have acted in such ways to these prisoners outside of the experiment were so easily manipulated into treating them inhumanely without any reason. The Stanford Prison Experiment reflects the capability of an authority figure to become oppressive and abusive with the only reason being that they are able to. Even though the Stanford Prison Experiment will live in infamy for its notorious immorality, it reflects many modern day abusive regimes and has taught us how much impact the bestowment of power can have.