Economics

Psychology 101: The Stanford Prison Experiment

What happens when you put good people in an evil place? Does humanity win over evil, or does evil triumph? Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist and a professor at Stanford University posed the same exact question in 1971, thereby leading to what is known as The Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE). The experiment was originally created to uncover the truth about human nature, a more in-depth look on what our true ambitions were, what really drove us. Zimbardo began by choosing 24 volunteers, making 12 of them “guards” and the other 12 “prisoners”.  They were taken to a prison simulation, a fabricated illusion to make the volunteers feel as if they were actually in prison. He began by  giving the guards ultimate power and left the prisoners vulnerable. This evidently led to a distinction of power between the two groups. 45 years later, people still ponder the  question that drove the experiment to its end. Was this study ethically right?  The Stanford Prison Experiment was not ethically right, it stripped volunteers of emotion temporarily, forcing them to turn against each other and was physically harmful to the majority of the participants. 

Zimbardo and Stanford Prison Experiment

The experiment proved that there is a darkness that inhabits every human psyche, but at what cost? Philip Zimbardo is most notorious for his experiment, The Stanford Prison Experiment, for the trauma that was caused to the volunteers during this 6 day trial. Zimbardo strictly advised to the guards that no psychical abuse was allowed, but instead were encouraged to mentally degrade them, as Zimbardo had stated, “You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can create a notion of arbitrariness that their life is totally controlled by us, by the system, you, me, and they’ll have no privacy… We’re going to take away their individuality in various ways. In general what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness. That is, in this situation we’ll have all the power and they’ll have none.” And the guards did just that, and more. Prisoners were named by a set of numbers, removing the only identity they had left in the system, the guards belittled prisoners for a sense of power that was not permanent. A revolt was even held against the guards on the second day, much to the prisoners dismay, it only fueled the guards power. Guards wore shaded glasses so no emotion could be spared through the eyes and soon enough, prisoner #8612 went mad, going into a rage that was out of control, but even after taking the prisoner out of the stimulus, the test continued. Many of the volunteers experienced severe depression, anxiety and other negative psychological behaviors, at one point the guards had started to manipulate the prisoners by turning them against each other in various ways. Although no long lasting trauma, the harsh emotional abuse in less than 6 days was so severe it led to psychotic breakouts, panic attacks and risky behavior.

Psychology of Prisoners and Prison Guards

Despite being told not to physically abuse the prisoners, the guards set up their own set of rules, the guards had begun harming the prisoners, Some even went beyond what is classified as immoral, these acts include spraying them with fire extinguishers and stepping on their backs while they did push ups. Push ups were used as a punishment for the prisoners who didn’t listen or abide by the rules, which is quite ironic since the guards did not follow the instructions Zimbardo had mandated. Other tortures included sleep deprivation, solitary confinement in a “janitor’s cupboard,” where they were isolated for hours without food and water and some prisoners had gone farther than this and had stripped them naked, which caused even a bigger feeling of dysphoria and depression, some guards even felt the need for putting bags over their heads. Some of the prisoners reacted with such extreme emotions that they were removed from the study before the end of five days.  Once during the experiment there was a rebellion and the guards responded with harsh actions. The guards broke into each cell, stripped the prisoners naked, took the beds out, forced the ringleaders of the prisoner rebellion into solitary confinement, and then began to harass and intimidate the prisoners. 

Although some may argue that it was ethical, it was approved by various facilities such as Stanford Human Subjects Review Committee, the Stanford Psychology Department, and the Group Effectiveness Branch of the Office of Naval Research and in addition, the Student Health Department was even alerted to the study and prior arrangements were made for any medical care the participants might need, but did these facilities care about the wellbeing of the volunteers or the information that came out of the experiment? In 1973, Zimbardo had even asked APA to conduct an ethics evaluation and concluded that all ethical guidelines had been followed. Volunteers also gave informed consent before participating, but the information provided before participating was very minimal, guards were given a brief crash course and prisoners were spontaneously arrested with no clue what was happening until after the arrest. Many ethical codes were not followed during the 6 day trial, and even though all participants regained emotional baseline and had no long lasting trauma, the events that had happened to them were so inhuman and unbearable that it was not tolerable.

History of Crowd Psychology and Social Psychology

The Stanford Prison Experiments may have been one of the most informative experiments done in the history of psychology, the emotional and even physical abuse that took place in the uncontrolled stimulus was so unendurable that it doesn’t make up for the knowledge we gained through this study.The ethics of this test were pushed way past its limits and no test like this should ever be run again, The students left feeling violated by the study and were ultimately deceived by Zimbardo and the experiment made the prisoners feel invaluable, like possessions and no human should go through the suffering they did in the matter of 6 days.

Works Cited

Bartels, Jared M. “The Stanford Prison Experiment in Introductory Psychology Textbooks: A Content Analysis – Jared M. Bartels, 2015.” SAGE Journals, journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1475725714568007.

“Demonstrating the Power of Social Situations via a Simulated Prison Experiment.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, http://www.apa.org/research/action/prison.

Konnikova, Maria, and Nicholas Lemann. “The Real Lesson of the Stanford Prison Experiment.” The New Yorker, http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/the-real-lesson-of-the-stanford-prison-experiment.

Mcleod, Saul. “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” Stanford Prison Experiment | Simply Psychology, http://www.simplypsychology.org/zimbardo.html.

er10559. “Was Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment an Ethical or Unethical Experiment?” Medium, Medium, 21 Dec. 2015, medium.com/@ERB10559/was-zimbardo-s-stanford-prison-experiment-an-ethical-or-unethical-experiment-1225211e5d0d.

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2 replies »

  1. When a someone wants to conduct a human experiment, they should participate at the lowest level (prisoner) in order to fully analyze the experiment. Otherwise, I see it as thoughts of superiority if the originator is refusing to participate. 🦉

    Like

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