What Is The Stanford Prison Experiment?

At the University of Stanford, college students were given the roles of both prisoners and guards, and they had to act according to what was expected from that particular role.

The Stanford prison experiment, which happened in 1971, was a psychology study of how people behave in a prison environment. At the University of Stanford, college students were given the roles of both prisoners and guards, and they had to act according to what was expected from that particular role. 

Fake Prison Role-Playing

The experiment was the idea of Philip G. Zimbardo, who was an American psychologist teaching at Stanford University. The whole project was funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research. Under Zimbardo’s lead, it was supposed to investigate how role-playing affects the behavior of the participants. Zimbardo was interested in how social expectations about each of these particular roles will influence the behavior of the students that decided to engage in this experiment.

After around 70 people, all young college male students showed interest in the prison experiment, Zimbardo and his crew chose 24 of them to be included in a situation that will simulate a prison environment. All of the participants were getting paid for this, students agreed to the terms and received $15 a day. It all started like it would in real life. 

Handcuffed hands of a prisoner behind the bars.
Handcuffed hands of a prisoner behind the bars.

The prisoners were first arrested by real police officers, and they were treated like criminals from the very beginning. The police took their fingerprints, mugshots, after which they blindfolded the students and took them inside the basement in one of the Stanford college buildings. Once they entered the mock prison, the prisoners were stripped of all their clothes, all their belongings were immediately taken away, and each participant received a uniform and a number. 

Students that were playing the role of prison guards were instructed that they do not indulge in any kind of physical violence against the prisoners. They were all asked to wear mirrored sunglasses, so any kind of eye contact can be avoided. However, it did not take too long before the students playing the guards started to bully the prisoners. Zimbardo’s predictions came true, and an atmosphere that nurtured oppression came to life within a few hours of the experiment. 

Six Days Of Hell

Things went from bad to worse in just a matter of days. The guards were given permission to control the prisoners. However, they could, and they chose to deploy counts in the middle of the night, so everyone could remember their prisoner number. It was the second day of the experiment when the prisoners said they will have no more and organized a rebellion. The rebellion was shut down, and so the tyranny and the cruelty of the guard raised. At the same time, the prisoners were already depressed and started to show signs of complete detachment. 

After only four days, three prisoners could not take it anymore, and Zimbardo decided that they can be released from the experiment. The experiment was expected to run for two whole weeks, but it was stopped after only six days. All of the prisoners were broken down by that time, and all of the guards used excessive force up to that point.

Handcuffed hands of a prisoner behind the bars.
Prisoner on the ground.

Zimbardo stopped the experiment, realizing that he started to think more like a prison superintendent than a scientist working in psychology.  

The Stanford prison experiment was immediately challenged by the scientist community for its questionable methodological and ethical framework. However, it did show a couple of things, depending on which perspective you decided to take. For Zimbardo, the experiment gave evidence of how social forces can affect the behavior of the guards, who started to go down the tyranny road swiftly. For others, the whole concept and the way it was presented, attracted people who were prone to an authoritarian way of thinking. Finally, the Stanford prison experiment can be portrayed as a tyranny created by an authority figure, in this case, that being Philip Zimbardo.   

About the Author

Antonia is a sociologist and an anglicist by education, but a writer and a behavior enthusiast by inclination. If she's not writing, editing or reading, you can usually find her snuggling with her huge dog or being obsessed with a new true-crime podcast. She also has a (questionably) healthy appreciation for avocados and Seinfeld.


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