Participants of the Stanford Prison Experiment

What Was the Stanford Prison Experiment? All You Should Know


The Stanford Prison Experiment is probably one of the most famous psychology studies ever conducted. Conducted in 1971 at Stanford University by a group of college students led by professor Philip Zimbardo, the experiment was to last two weeks but was terminated after just six days.

The experiment made use of male students from Stanford University. Half of them were randomly assigned to play the role of prisoners. The other half played the roles of prison guards.

After the experiment was over, the prison guards became mentally unstable and emotionally detached. They were talking about the prisoners as ‘scum’ among other things.

The prisoners and guards were not told what the experiment was about before assigning their roles. Let us learn more below!

The Stanford Experiment Participants

The experiment began with 24 students participating. Half were assigned roles as prisoners, and the other half to be guards.

The volunteers for the experiment were male Stanford students aged between 18 and 25. They were all questioned on their mental health and had to be without any criminal history.

These 24 participants were randomly separated into two groups of 12. Each group was given a cell known as the ‘specially designed basement of Jordan Hall’, a building in Stanford University.

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The Stages of the Stanford Experiment

There were 6 Phases of the experiment. Each lasted between 1 and 2 weeks, starting on Aug 14, 1971:

  1. The study began with the prisoners and guards being introduced to each other by Zimbardo. There was no violence used, but there were intimidations on both sides.
  2. After an introduction, the prisoners were told to count off and then strip naked and undergo a “degradation procedure”. They were then allowed to put their clothes back on. The guards were not happy about this and taunted them, forcing them to count off once more.
  3. Prisoners and guards were told that they could not discuss the experiment outside of the prison site.
  4. The prisoners began to rebel. They discovered no cameras in prison and managed to break down a door of their cellblock. Even then, the guards forced them to go back into the cells.
  5. The guards became more oppressive, forcing the prisoners to sleep outside and starve for three days. The prisoners were not allowed to go to the toilet, and when they did, it was in a bucket.
  6. As this happened, the guards became more and more abusive. They stripped the men of their clothes and forced them to eat pet food from a bowl on the floor. The last day of the experiment was Aug 23, 1971. That morning, Zimbardo called for an end to the study, and the prisoners were freed.

Alternate Versions of the Stanford Prison Experiment Summary

There are four different versions of this experiment which Zimbardo has published: (listed in order of publication date)

  1. The 1971 study: An Analysis of the Stanford Prison Experiment. It was conducted at Stanford University by a group of college students led by Philip Zimbardo.
  2. A prisons simulation: Done at the Stanford County Jail by students from Stanford University.
  3. Prison life: The psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison warden.
  4. The Lucifer Effect: The Stanford prison experiment by Stanford University students.

What was Life like for the Prisoners in the Stanford Prison Experiment?

The prisoners were stripped naked and given a uniform. They were dehumanized, taunted and treated like animals. In describing the harsh treatment, Zimbardo himself said he felt dishonored to be conducting such actions against his students.

The guards would force the prisoners to do things they didn’t want to do. When the prisoners refused, the guards increased their harassment and abuse.

The guards also forced the prisoners to do pushups, ran them around and even used force. The study was supposed to run for 14 days, but Zimbardo himself stopped on the 6th day.

What was Life like for the Prison Guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment?

The guards were given additional privileges (such as a bigger room and bed) and control the prisoners. The guards eventually became sadistic and controlling.

According to the psychology professor, he felt the guards were so far removed from their true selves that they “hated what [they] were doing… but [couldn’t] stop”.

What was the Purpose of a Stanford Prison Experiment?

The study has various purposes:

  1. To see what happens when you put a person into the role of a prison guard (as opposed to a random sample of people).
  2. To observe what happens when you put someone into the role of prisoner (as opposed to a random sample of people).
  3. To move away from the simulation field into a more controlled setting (the Stanford Prison was a simulated prison, not a real one that already existed). This allowed the prisoners and guards to be monitored without interference from other people.
  4. The study of prison life would give ordinary people an idea of what happens in a prison environment to help them understand the prisoners better.

How was the Stanford Prison Experiment Conducted?

The study took place in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. It was a simulated prison (with an “Escape” door) designed to look like a realistic prison by architectural students (the “prison” only had one entrance and exit).

Three of the cells were furnished with two beds, a toilet and a sink: these simulated the basic needs of a prison cell. There was another unfurnished cell: this one simulated the punishment block or solitary confinement.

According to Zimbardo, the experiment had to do with the people and not the prison. However, some of his visiting friends commented that the scene did look like a real-life prison.

Twelve students were selected as prisoners, and another 12 were chosen as guards for the experiment. The students were randomly picked to act as either a prisoner or guard, with only four males.

Zimbardo played the role of a prison supervisor. He observed all that was happening through one-way mirrors and communicated with the guards using an intercom system. His assistant observed the behavior of the prisoners.

Prisoners’ Revolt

The prison study started with introducing a prisoner revolt (the guards were, according to Zimbardo, “caught by surprise”). The prisoners managed to control one of the guards (prisoner #8612) and demand the prison authorities.

This revolt was used to see how both guards and prisoners would react under “real-life” conditions (such as an actual prison would have).

The prisoners staged a second revolt two days later, though this one was less successful than the first one. The guards were more organized this time around and could use force (such as with the threat of physical violence) to break up this revolt.

After this second revolt, Zimbardo believed that the guards had broken the prisoners’ will and decided to end the experiment.

The Interpretations of the Prison Experiment Results

There has been some dispute over the results of the prison experiment. Some critics have suggested that Zimbardo set up the experiment to go in a particular direction (according to Zimbardo, the experiment took on a life of its own).

Zimbardo suggests that putting people in a situation that they are not used to will bring out their true nature – both good and bad. There is no doubt about the negative results of the experiment, such as how the guards took their roles too seriously and used verbal abuse and humiliation (one prisoner was forced to strip naked in front of the other prisoners).

On the other hand, some people would suggest negative results attributed to Zimbardo’s divorce. He admits that he did not have the time necessary to set up the experiment correctly.

His students and colleagues pressured him to start the study as soon as possible. This pressure could also have affected how things played out.

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Deindividualism in The Prison Experiment

Deindividuation is the process of losing your sense of identity and merging into a group. Zimbardo noticed that the guards tended to act as a group (for example, all the guards would enforce the same rule at once).

He argues that this could be because the guards were trying to hide their sense of guilt for what they had done. Alternatively, it could also be a way of justifying what they did (i.e. it must have been right because everyone else did it too).

Deindividuation is a social condition in which an individual’s psychological state changes, making them behave impulsively. An example would be when someone is intoxicated and wakes up the next day not remembering what they did because they were in that mindset.

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The Significance of the Stanford Prison Experiment

Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment has had a profound effect on the way humans view themselves and behave to others.

The effects of this study can be seen in the way some police forces operate. For example, changes were made to LAPD procedures because of their corruption. The beating of Rodney King also exposed their “trigger-happy” behaviour.

This experiment also affects how we view other cultures. Many of the cruel acts committed by non-western nations during wartime are often justified in the face of “uncivilized” behaviour. Zimbardo argues that the Stanford Prison Experiment is a prime example of human nature.

What happened in Abu Ghraib prison was deemed un-civilized because it did not fit in with our idea of civil society.

The Limits of the Stanford Prison Experiment

Zimbardo only allowed his “prisoners” to be in prison for two days. Although this was sufficient time to show the results of his experiment, he was criticized for only using the prison setting as a means to an end. He did not look at how people would be affected if they were in prison for a longer time.

In 1994, Zimbardo conducted the Robbers Cave Experiment, which looked at how aggression and conflict can impact people. After only a few days in the setting, some participants were so aggressive that they tried to burn the other team’s cabin to the ground.

Zimbardo was criticized for using ordinary people as participants in his studies instead of trained actors. He said he chose ordinary people because they were more likely to give a truthful result.

Criticisms of the Stanford Prison Experiment

The findings of the study are indeed frightening. It shows that putting people in specific roles can have a dehumanizing effect. Also, orders from authority figures are obeyed – even though they may go against common sense and what is considered morally just.

The problem with Zimbardo’s study is that it does not show this (contrary to what he may think). What the study shows can be summarized as follows:

  • Ordinary people can be manipulated into taking on roles that they would not usually take
  • People are willing to obey orders from authority figures
  • People can be conditioned to carry out actions that they would not usually carry out
  • If a situation allows for it, people will take on roles that are negative (such as guards harassing prisoners)
  • This study may be good for the military, to show them how to identify candidates who may make good “guards”. However, it does not show anything that we did nor do not already know about humans. Ironically, Zimbardo himself says the study took on a life of its own.
  • His study was more about how people take on roles and become absorbed by those roles rather than how people become evil. This is a more interesting study because it does not assume that humans are innately bad.
  • The American psychological association has criticized Zimbardo because of his role in the experiment as a “prison superintendent”. Although they admit that the experiment shows that people can be manipulated, they also point out that this is not a study of human nature. They have argued that the experiment was poorly designed and that it lacked basic scientific controls.
  • The American Psychological Association have suggested that Zimbardo’s conclusion do not necessarily reflect human behavior in real life.
  • The psychological study portrayed a prison warden as a “bad person” and the prisoners as “good people”. This is reasonable because, in any prison study, it makes sense to portray them like this. However, this does not reflect how people behave in real life and can therefore lack scientific value.
  • Zimbardo himself acknowledges that his “prisoners” and guards did not become evil. He says that the prisoners did not have a clear sense of “where they were”. Also, the guards knew that it was an experiment after it was over. This setup was a problem because if people are not portrayed as evil and the prison is not real, how can we judge whether people are good or evil?
  • The Stanford Prison Experiment has not changed our perception of nature and could not do so again. There is nothing natural about the Stanford Prison Experiment. The reason why it is so powerful is that we know that reality did not mirror this experiment. Therefore, we need to ask, what does it say about real prisons?

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How Does The Stanford Experiment Compare to The Abu Ghraib Prison Torture?

1. We now see how the Stanford experiment correlates with the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The fact that guards had cameras and could take pictures of what they were doing was not a natural occurrence in prison. Like Zimbardo’s study, it was an experiment (albeit unplanned) that allowed people to take on roles and perform tasks that they may not have performed otherwise.

2. The Prisoners in Abu Ghraib were dehumanized by their captors, who called them names like “terrorists”. This is comparable to Zimbardo’s experiment, where the prisoners had numbers instead of names.

3. The CIA was said to have used sexual humiliation tactics in Abu Ghraib, which is comparable to how Zimbardo would humiliate the prisoners. This was not a natural occurrence in Abu Ghraib, but they were trained to do by their captors.

4. The internal military investigation of the Abu Ghraib scandal determined a breakdown in leadership and poor training. This aspect compares to Zimbardo’s experiment, which can be seen as a leadership breakdown.

5. The military culture of the United States is what led to the Abu Ghraib scandal. A soldier was told he might not be promoted if he didn’t participate in a particular activity. This blackmail also happened in the Zimbardo experiment. The soldier was told it was an opportunity, and so he decided to do it.

6. The abuse of prisoners from Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment was kept secret until after it had finished. This secrecy is comparable to how Abu Ghraib was kept secret from everyone in the outside world until after it had ended.

7. The prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison were not given freshwater or allowed to sleep. A similar situation was observed in Zimbardo’s study. The prisoners suffered from lack of sleep, and were not given fresh water.

8. The Abu Ghraib prisoners were forced to endure the humiliation of nakedness. This humiliation is comparable to what Zimbardo’s prisoners endured.

9. The Abu Ghraib Prisoners’ clothes and personal belongings were either taken or destroyed the same way Zimbardo’s prisoners had their clothes taken.

10. As was the case in Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo’s prisoners were forced to endure physical and mental abuse . This situation compares to the way that Abu Ghraib prisoners were subject to physical and psychological abuse.

11. Finally, as was the case in Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo’s prisoners were forced to do degrading things, like simulate sodomy. This is comparable to how the Abu Ghraib prisoners were forced to perform degrading sexual acts on each other.

The Stanford Prison Experiment Questions

  1. What did the participants in the Stanford prison experiment experience?
  2.  Were the participants in this experiment and their behaviour influenced by what they were told to expect?
  3. Did the participants’ behaviour have an impact on their surroundings, and how?
  4.  What outcomes of this experiment have impacted us today?
  5.  Would the Stanford prison experiment have turned out differently if people were told to expect abuse, as was the case in Abu Ghraib?
  6.  How could systems of authority be legitimately and morally justified in the light of behaviour analyzed from the Stanford prison experiment?
  7. Was the Stanford prison experiment an accurate representation of reality?
  8. How do our own experiences and upbringing influence us in our interactions with others?
  9. What do the results of this experiment tell us about human behaviour?
  10. How can these experiments (the Stanford prison experiment and Milgram experiments) help us understand evil’s psychology?
  11.  How has this experiment changed our perception of what is natural, and could it do so again?

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Summing it All Up

The experiment was designed to put ordinary people in a prison environment. The results were as follows:

  1. Prisoners and guards quickly adapt to their respective roles (altruism was reduced).
  2. The guards went from being authority-respecting to being authoritarian.
  3. The prisoners showed signs of distress (for example, four prisoners had to be released earlier because they were suffering from the effects of the prison).
  4. Releasing prisoners in a staggered fashion made no difference (only one prisoner, #8612, managed to avoid being totally assimilated).
  5. Prisoners identified with the “prisoner” role rather than their true identities.
  6. The prison environment fostered the development of “negative” prison subcultures (jailhouse snitch, convert-or-die, etc.).
  7. Despite the negative effects of the experiment itself, it did show that people can be put into a situation in which they take on a role that they would not normally take.

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Bottom Line

Zimbardo’s experiment showed the dangers of taking on the role of either prisoner or guard. Both groups took on the parts they had been given and were influenced by external factors to justify their actions. The guards influenced the prisoners to take on their roles, while Zimbardo himself encouraged them to be abusive towards the prisoners.

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