Nov 10, 2017 in Analysis

The Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted in 1971 by an American psychologist Philip Zimbardo. The aim of this research was to see how restriction of freedom and the prison environment influenced a person’s state of mind, and how an imposed social role changed a person’s behavior. The research was funded by the United States Navy which was interested in the reasons behind conflicts in its refectories. The highly improvised prison was situated in the basement of Stanford psychology department building.

The participants were chosen from 70 people who volunteered having read the announcement in a newspaper. From those 70, 24 the most healthy and psychologically stable ones were chosen for the experiment; all of them were students. They were engaged for 15 dollars per day; the planned duration of the experiment was 14 days.

These 24 students were divided into ‘guards’ and ‘prisoners’. Zimbardo was the superintendent, and his research assistant took on the role of the warden. During the briefing with the ‘guards’, Zimbardo instructed them not to exert psychological violence onto prisoners, but to create an environment where prisoners would feel powerless, scared, and fully controlled. In that situation, the prisoners were to feel that the guards had all the power, but not them. The prisoners were arrested by real policemen, and they underwent the proper arrest procedure.

The experiment soon got out of control. The guards treated the prisoners with aggression; at the end of the experiment, many prisoners showed heavy emotional disorder. The prisoners were called only by their numbers, and the daily call-over turned into mockery a few hours long. The guards soon got into the taste of power over the prisoners and cruelly treated them more and more.

The experiment was stopped after the complaint of one of the observers over the horrible conditions in the prison. The experiment lasted only 6 days instead of 14.

In my opinion, the experiment was a horrible experience. It showed what people could turn into when given unlimited power over the others. The prisoners were treated immorally and brutally; they were even refused the right to wash themselves and use the toilets, which made the sanitary conditions intolerable in the prison.

Those who became guards got that role only by chance; they could have been prisoners if they were not lucky. But none of the guards thought of that; they treated prisoners cruelly without thinking that the same could have happened to them. In only six days, ordinary psychologically stable people turned into sadists; they were not even trying to fight that influence. They took for granted the excuse that they were allowed to behave that way. Actually, after 6 days, the experiment was stopped, and the guards were disappointed for that fact.

Another point is that only one of more than 50 supervisors who observed the experiment reported of cruel conditions in the prison. I personally cannot imagine how one could not see that the prisoners were staying in horrible conditions under the supervision of cruel guards. But the fact remains as only one person, Maslach, protested – the others did not say anything.

The prisoners experienced psychological and physical abuse, many undergone shock, one had a rash on psychological grounds. The conditions in this so called prison were in some respects even stricter than in real prisons.

Perhaps, the experiment produced some valuable results because there, the prison environment was fully under observation of the conductor; as the environment was fully artificial, the created conditions were completely adapted to the aims of the experiment. But regardless of the valuable results, I do not suppose the outcome was worth the experience the prisoners have undergone. I honestly hope that hereafter the experiments aimed to receive similar data will be conducted in more humane form because I am sure that the prisoners of the Stanford prison will remember that frightful experience for a long time.

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