The Stanford Prison Experiment – Too Immersed In Their Roles?



This is the 2nd post in our interesting psychological studies series. In the previous posts, we talked about the following psychological studies:

The Stanford Prison Experiment is one of the few psychological studies that are focused on the effects of being either a prison guard or a prisoner. Conducted back in August of 1970 at Stanford University, it was financially supported by the US Office of Naval Research to look at the different reasons why conflicts between prison guards and prisoners exist.

Objective of the experiment

The proponent of this psychology research, Philip Zimbardo, along with his team of researchers, wanted to test the hypothesis that prisoners and prison guards have inherent traits that cause abusive behavior in prison. Zimbardo designed the experiment in such a way that the participants would feel disoriented, depersonalized, and deindividualized while in participating in the study.

The Participants

Zimbardo recruited 24 predominantly white, middle class males who they found to be psychologically healthy and stable. The team of researchers ensured that the participants had no criminal background or psychological impairment to ensure that extraneous variables were kept at a minimum.

The Experiment

The study was done in the basement of Stanford University’s building of psychology – the Jordan Hall. Zimbardo himself participated and took on the role of the superintendent, while a research assistant of his assumed the role of the warden.

The 24 participants were split into 2 groups – the first group played the role of the prison guards, and the other half played the role of the prisoners. Before the experiment began, Zimbardo and his team held an orientation for the group of prison guards regarding the guidelines that they had to follow: about inducing feelings of boredom, fear to a certain extent, the lack of privacy, and powerlessness to the team of prisoners. However, they were strictly prohibited from physically harming the prisoners.

For this psychology research, the group of prison guards was given batons to help establish their status, and clothed them in prison guard uniform as well. As for the group of prisoners, they wore ill-fitting smocks as well as stocking caps, and wore a chain in one of their ankles. The team of prison guards was also instructed to call the prisoners with their assigned numbers and not by their names.

Unlike other psychological studies, this experiment made the group of prisoners really go through the procedure of a normal arrest, which included the taking of mug shots as well as fingerprinting. They were then transferred to the mock prison – the basement of Jordan Hall, where they were assigned ‘new identities’ and went through strip searches.

The mock prison had cells that can hold up to three prisoners. It also had a space for a prison yard, a solitary cell for confinement, and a space visible from the prisoners were they could see the guards and the warden. The team of prisoners had to stay all throughout the duration of the study, while the prison guards worked in shifts of 8 hours each.

The Results And What They Mean

The participants seemed to internalize and truly assume the roles that they had been given. According to the group of prisoners, the prison guards seemed to eventually display genuine feelings of sadism because of the power they held over the prisoners. On the other hand, the prisoners showed feelings of rebellion, and eventually gave in to the prison guards’ orders. They also held on to the ideas of reward and punishment, and some even went on hunger strike to show support for a fellow prisoner who was being ‘mistreated’ and abused.

The Stanford Prison experiment supported the findings of the Stanley Milgram experiment – in which people, regardless of their individual personalities, would somehow change and adapt to the situation they are currently in. The selected participants for the Stanford Prison experiment had been deemed psychologically healthy by Zimbardo and his team, and yet they displayed behaviors that are otherwise normal when they were assigned roles and given the environment to play them in.

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