The Stanford Prison Experiment
Off all the ill-advised – and indeed, cruel – experiments North American universities have carried out over the decades, none is more infamous than the Stanford Prison Experiment. It’s so famous, in fact, that movies have been made based on the experiment which took place at Stanford University for one week in August 1971. Furthermore, while undoubtedly cruel, its findings are still used to inform popular understanding of psychological manipulation. Moreover, the behaviour of the participants involved is often held up as a warning about what can happen if humans are given power without accountability.
The experiment was led by Professor Phillip Zimbrano. As a psychologist, he was eager to see whether abuse in prisons can be explained by the inherent psychological traits of both guards and prisoners. Given the topic, he received funding from the U.S. Office of Naval Research. Funding in hand, Zimbrano set about recruiting participants. This turned out to be no problem at all, as a number of Stanford students volunteered to take part. Zimbrano then appointed some of the volunteers as guards and the others were designated as prisoners. The experiment could begin.
In the basement of the university’s psychology department, Zimbrano had built a makeshift ‘prison’. In all, 12 prisoners were kept here in small cells, while 12 guards were assigned a different part of the basement. While the prisoners had to endure tough conditions, the guards enjoyed comfortable, furnished quarters. The participants were also dressed for their parts, with the guards given uniforms and wooden batons. They were also kitted out with dark sunglasses so they could avoid eye contact with the people they were tasked with guarding.
Within 24 hours, any semblance of calm had gone. The prisoners started to revolt and the guards started to react. Special cells were set up to give well-behaving prisoners preferential treatment. The guards – who were barred from actually physically hitting their charges – started to use psychological methods to keep prisoners down. They would deny them food or put prisoners in darkened cells. Sleep was also denied to the prisoners. Within six days, Zimbrano agreed to halt the experiment. He did, at least, have more than enough evidence – some of it filmed – to draw on when making his conclusions.
Professor Zimbrano noted that around one third of the guards – again, young men taken randomly from the Stanford student population – exhibited genuine sadistic tendencies. At the same time, most of the inmates were seen to ‘internalise’ their roles. They took on the mentality of prisoners. While they could have left at any time, they instead gave up and became weak and passive. In the end, the experiment received, and continues to receive, criticism for the harsh methods used. Nevertheless, the findings of the Stanford Prison Experiment actually changed the way U.S. prisons are run and they are often held up as proof that most people can inflict cruelty and suffering on another human being if they are given a position of power and ordered to do so.