Real Studies: Philip Zimbardo’s (1971) Stanford Prison Experiment.
The Stanford Prison experiment lead to effects so disastrous that it had to be shut down after running for only six days of the planned two week duration. In 1971, Zimbardo decided to explore the psychological effect of becoming a prison guard or prisoner. The experiment has come under large amounts of criticism, due to the disturbance caused to participants (mainly the guards). The experiment took place in Stanford University, California, and there was 24 male participants. The participants we predominantly white and middle-class. There were originally 70 volunteers, but Zimbardo picked the 24 “most psychologically stable and healthy”. The “prison” was mock, and constructed in the basement of the Psychology department in Stanford University. Participants were paid for their time ($15 a day).
So what actually happened?
The 24 males were randomly assigned to two groups. 12 were prison guards, and 12 were prisoners. Zimbardo’s aim was to disorientate and depersonalise the prisoners. He constructed a set of conditions which he hoped would achieve this. Prison Guards were given ultimate power. They were equipped with wooden batons, and given the power to deliver punishments as they saw necessary. They also had mirrored sunglasses which prevented any eye contact. They were made to wear khaki army clothes to replicate army guard clothes. Prisoners wore dirty prison clothes which fitted badly and caused much discomfort. They were called by numbers, which were sewn on their clothes – further dehumanising them. They also wore chains around their ankles to remind them of their powerlessness.
Zimbardo took the role of “superintendent”, but did not interfere with the interactions of the guards and prisoners. He also had a research assistant who was a “warden”. The mock prison had small cells, each holding three prisoners. There was a tiny solitary confinement room, and another room served as the ‘prison yard’. To begin, there was a day of “orientation” where the guards were not allowed to physically harm the prisoners; they could only provoke fear and stamp their authority on them. The prisoners went through an official arrest and booking. They were arrested in their homes and charged with local robbery. With assistance from the local police force, Zimbardo then took mug shots and fingerprinted the prisoners. This further created a feeling of helplessness.
So what were the results?
Within the first few days, guards were abusing their power in the most horrific of ways. Prisoners were violently abused and humiliated on a regular basis. Normal students were turning into monsters in less than 72 hours. Before Zimbardo’s eyes, the experiment was spiralling out of control; guards were becoming sadistic and evil. Prisoners accepted their fate will little or no resistance, rather, they were so stressed they felt too helpless to fight back in any way. By the end of the experiments closure, many prisoners faced severe emotional disturbance.
The beginning of the abuse began on the second day; the first day was uneventful and the guards were not too abusive of the prisoners. However, during day two, a riot broke out. Guards agreed to work overtime to break up the riots, and used fire extinguishers to batter protesters – when the research team weren’t around. After that, the guards became wild, unpredictable and sadistic. After merely 36 hours, one of the prisoners (Prisoner #8612) started to show signs of insanity. According to Zimbardo:
#8612 then began to act “crazy,” to scream, to curse, to go into a rage that seemed out of control. It took quite a while before we became convinced that he was really suffering and that we had to release him.
The study rapidly crumbled after this stage. Rumours were spread that Prisoner #8612 wasn’t really disturbed, but was going to help break the other prisoners out. To prevent this, the guards rebuilt the prison in a different area of Stanford University. When there was no riot or attempt to break out, the guards were dismayed they worked so hard to move the prison. They took out this anger on the prisoners.
Prisoners were often not allowed to defecate or urinate, and the “sanitation bucket” was left till the level of squalor was disgusting. Mattresses were regarded as a gift, so prisoners often slept on cold concrete. They were subjected to push ups regularly and other intense exercise. They were sometimes stripped of clothes and humiliated, and sometimes made to do sexual acts to other prisoners. Zimbardo stated that about 1/3 of guards showed genuine sadistic tendencies.
To see footage of the experiment, play the video below.
After 6 days of sadistic torture, the experiment had to be closed down for the safety of the participants. So what are the conclusions from this highly unethical study?
It was concluded that the experiment supports the idea of situational attribution, rather than dispositional attribution. This basically means that it was the situation that caused the prison guards to become sadistic, not their actual personalities. Like the Milgram Experiment, it shows that ordinary people can commit the most horrific of deeds in very little time. The study is used to support the Cognitive Dissonance Theory as well.
For further footage, type “Stanford Prison Experiment” into the YouTube search. There is a 6 part film which shows the study in detail.