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The Stanford Prison Experiment: Why Circumstances Can Bring Out the Evil in Inherently Good People

There is an experiment conducted in the Stanford University which involves male college students to show if the goodness of an individual remains even if they are in a prison-like environment. / Photo by: Uladzik Kryhin via 123rf


In 1971, a controversial experiment involving male college students was conducted at Stanford University. The study, now known as the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), which has often been referred to in their lectures and books by many psychologists to show how roles affect human nature, is now currently being criticized for what many experts consider is its questionable ethics. Some are even declaring that it should be taken out of psychology textbooks.

Philip Zimbardo, the lead researcher, said this about why he performed the experiment, “Suppose you had only kids who were normally healthy, psychologically and physically, and they knew they would be going into a prison-like environment and that some of their civil rights would be sacrificed. Would those good people, put in that bad, evil place--would their goodness triumph?”


The Roles of the Participants

Zimbardo took the role of the of the Prison Superintendent. He gathered 21 college-age participants who responded to their ad in a Palo Alto newspaper and segregated them into two groups. Ten of them were assigned as prisoners, while 11 assumed the role of guards. Before participating in the experiment, they were tested on whether they had psychological problems or other medical conditions to be able to assess if they were healthy enough for the experiment, were not previously involved in a crime and to be able to properly give them their roles.



Research Method Used

Zimbardo told the students, who have changed into guards and prisoners, that they would be part of an experiment which was to last for two weeks. For participating, each of them would be paid $15 every day. They were led to the basement of the Psychology Department of Stanford University which had turned into a prison. Inside the basement, there were three prison cells which were six by nine foot, according to Verywell Mind.

To get the guards into their role, they were dressed in uniforms, given batons, whistles, sunglasses, and keys to each cell. On the other hand, to make the student prisoners feel as if they were real, they were arrested by the Palo Alto police from their houses, forced into the police cars, had their hair sprayed to prevent the spreading of lice and for the whole duration of the orientation, were made to stand naked before being provided with prison clothes. The mock prisoners were also subject to some forms of abuse such as blindfolding them, being forced to wear women’s clothes, not letting them wear underwear and not being permitted to look outside a window, Psychologist World describes. The prisoners had to stay in the mock prison every day while the guards were permitted to return to their homes after their eight-hour shifts.

The researchers monitored the behavior of guards and the prisoners in the makeshift prison daily through their hidden cameras and microphones.

Results of SPE

Although the experiment was initially going to be conducted for 14 days, it came to a halt because of its effects on the participants. The students assigned as guards became more aggressive in dealing with the prisoners, while the prisoners who felt dehumanized had rebelled against the guards. They also exhibited symptoms of anxiety and acute stress.

When the prisoner began rebelling against them, the guards tried to impose their power by physical force. They made them take off their clothes, made them undergo solitary confinement and had them wear chains. They also employed some psychological force to drive the prisoners to despair.

His girlfriend, Christina Maslach, who became his wife after 40 years, asked him to stop the experiment to avoid causing more damage on the participants. Zimbardo confessed that he too had been overcome by his role in the experiment.


The guards became aggressive by making the prisoneres take off their clothes, made them undergo solitary confinement and had them wear chains. / Photo by: Allan Swart via 123rf


The Purpose of the SPE

The goal was to be able to demonstrate a situation wherein they could observe a personal character change as their roles became their reality. In the Stanford Prison Experiment, it was shown that the guards had all the power while the prisoners had no control over their situation. It was illustrated in the experiment that because the guards had been given a superior position, they started acting in a different way than they would usually do. Meanwhile, the helpless prisoners who were unable to do anything about their state turned depressed and passive.

In an interview carried out by Nautilus, he explains that certain physical settings have its own group of functional regulations. He adds that when a person gets into the situation, the situation dictates the rules and how the person acts in a specific circumstance. Moreover, the physical setting such classrooms and prisons, tell a person how to behave, what the boundaries of their actions are and what they do at that very moment.

“The message of my little Stanford Prison Experiment is that situations can have a more powerful influence over behavior than most people realize. Social psychologists like myself have been trying to correct the belief that most people hold that evil is only located in the disposition of the individual--in their genes, their brains, their essence--and that there are good apples and bad apples,” Zimbardo claims.


Social psychologists like myself have been trying to correct the belief that most people hold that evil is only located in the disposition of the individual. / Photo by: Irina Pusepp via 123rf




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