The Stanford Prison Experiment was designed by Philip Zimbardo in 1973 in order to investigate the psychological consequences of “perceived power”.
A total of 24 male college students were recruited for a two-week simulation and were told that they would be paid $15 per day so, being students (and no doubt needing the money), they all agreed to participate. Before the study began all of the participants were deemed psychologically and physically ‘healthy’ via a serious of tests and were specifically chosen for their lack of criminal background or impairment.
The study was conducted in the basement of Stanford University’s psychology building.
What happened next?
The 24 participants were split into two groups: guards and prisoners. Those who were guards were given an orientation session before the experiment and were told specifically not to harm the prisoners. Meanwhile, on the day of the study, the Palo Alto police department assisted Zimbardo by “arresting” the prisoners and charging them with a crime (including all booking procedures, mugshots etc.) before taking them to the simulated prison. Prisoners were immediately stripped of their clothing and given smocks and stocking caps whilst the guards were armed with wooden batons and a standard guard uniform i.e. khaki shirt and pants, with dark sunglasses. From this moment, we see the deindividuation of the group whereby their sense of self is removed and replaced with the identity of the group e.g. you are no longer ‘John’, you are a prisoner.
Where it started to go wrong
After an uneventful first day, the prisoners staged a protest by blockading their cell doors with mattresses and refusing to follow the instructions of the guards. Without the supervision of the researchers, guards soon began attacking prisoners with fire extinguishers to subdue them. After just three days, one prisoner had to be released from the experiment after uncontrollable bouts of rage, crying and screaming. The guards would also employ various methods of degradation and abuse such as making some of the prisoners strip naked, removing mattresses from cells so prisoners had to sleep on concrete or engage in lengthy extraneous exercise. Prisoners were also forced to repeat their prisoner numbers for hours on end, further consolidating their group identity and dehumanisation.
Before long, Zimbardo himself became enthralled by the simulation and quickly adopted the role of the prison warden. It wasn’t until his research assistant (and girlfriend at the time) Christina Maslach who was sent in to conducted interviews objected to the treatment of the prisoners that the study was finally dissolved after a total of 6 days (out of the proposed 14).
Pros and Cons
The Stanford Prison Experiment in itself did provide support for a number of theories such as: situational attribution whereby a person’s actions have been caused by being in a particular situation, and the power of group identity/authority. Despite its potential advantages however, this study demonstrates the damage (both physical and psychological) a lack of ethical consideration can do to participants and as a result, any of its findings should be taken with a dash – or rather a truckload- of salt. With the ethical guidelines in place today by the BPS and APA, a study of this design would never have been granted approval (along with many other studies conducted in the 70’s). On one hand, psychology is invariably in the debt of researchers such as Zimbardo for advancing the field at the degree it did, but at the same time, one must tread carefully in the amount of praise it is given. Either way this experiment is a must-know for the area of social psychology, and indeed the ethics of psychological research.