The Stanford Prison Experiment
Written By: TJ
Edited By: Grave Reviews Staff
Oftentimes, most of us think we are perfectly normal, incapable of hurting others in such a horrifying manner. We think we are better than those who commit heinous crimes or even the subtle ones. However, the Stanford Prison Experiment shows us otherwise. It shows us how seemingly normal people can act completely different when put in position of power and survival. This was the case for what was supposed to be a two-week experiment, but turned into a 6-day study because of these drastic changes in human behavior. Thus, the Stanford Prison Experiment was ensued creating one of the most memorable case studies leading to extensive ethical concerns.
A Job Post and the Qualified Applicants
In the quiet town of Palo Alto California, around 70 people answered to a part-time job ad in the local newspaper that offered $15 a day for two weeks. The job description emphasized that qualified applicants will participate in a study about the psychological effects of prison life: what it’s like to be a prisoner, or a prison officer. The study was headed by Philip Zimbardo, a psychology professor at Stanford University who would then act as the prison warden.
After a series of intensive diagnostic interviews and personality tests to eliminate the candidates with psychological problems, medical disabilities, and history of crime or drug abuse, a total of 24 middle-class college students were selected.
On one peaceful sunday morning on the 14th of August 1971, all the 24 male students were arrested from their homes for crimes of either robbery or burglary. They were warned of their Miranda rights and then handcuffed, as curious neighbors looked upon the commotion. The sirens wailed as police put the suspects at the backseat of their police cars, then sped off to Palo Alto police station.
First Day on the Job
Upon arrival, all 24 males were again reminded of their legal rights and then were formally booked, identified, and body searched. Subsequently, they were blindfolded and taken to a cell to wonder what they have done to get into this mess.
A flip coin was then inaugurated. This was to determine who was going to be selected as prisoners, and who was going to be guards. It is important to remember that the division was completely made out of sheer luck, and that there were no standards to place certain college students into certain groups.
Sooner after, the college students were transferred to the basement of Stanford Psychology Department Building, where it was transformed into “Stanford County Jail” with the help of experienced consultants including a former prisoner who served 17 years behind bars. He tipped the experimenters about the ins and outs of prison cells, and what it was like living in those for almost two decades.
The experimenters were able to create a prison out of the basement of the university. They boarded up each end of a corridor which they called “The Yard” where prisoners were allowed to walk, eat, or exercise. The toilet was down the hallway that prisoners can only use if they are blindfolded to maintain security. All the 3 rooms were replaced with specially made doors with steel bars and cell numbers.
To record that occurred, a videotape was placed at the end of the hall a with small opening. To hear what prisoners discussed and to make public announcements, an intercom system was set up. Lastly, at the other end of the hall was what they called “The Hole”, a solitary confinement about two feet wide, which was just enough for one “bad prisoner” to stand up.
Having all these features in place, the Stanford experimenters were ready to receive its guards and prisoners. Upon completion of the “jail”, the participants arrived from the Palo Alto Detention Facility.
Conflict with the Bosses
Philip Zimbardo, acting as the prison warden, greeted the prisoners and reminded them of how serious their crimes were. A degradation procedure commenced and the prisoners were then stripped naked and sprayed with germicidal spray. Although real prisoners are not forced to wear dresses, the Stanford Prison Experiment wanted to simulate the emasculation and humiliation that real prisoners feel whereby they are forced to wear uniform clothing. On their smocks was their prison ID number to avoid confusion with other prisoners. Their head was covered with a stocking cap made from women’s nylon stocking to mimic being shaved and their right ankle was bolted with a heavy chain.
If there were lucky ones in this study, that would be the students assigned to be guards. They weren’t given rules on how to do their job, as long as they do everything to maintain law, order, and respect from prisoners. One thing was reminded them of, however, and that is whatever they do can take potential seriousness within the cell.
The guards wore similar uniforms of khaki shorts and sunglasses, an idea borrowed from the movie Cool Hand Luke. They also have whistles around their neck and billy clubs borrowed from the police. With everything ready, the study set off.
The experimenters began with 9 guards and 9 prisoners. The 3 cells were occupied by three prisoners each and three guards worked each of three eight-hour shifts. The remaining 6 students from the 24 samples were on call just in case they were needed. The prisoners had to stay in jail around the clock while the guards can go home after their shift. Talk about privileges.
The guards on duty wanted to assert their authority so at 2:30 AM, whistles were blown to wake the prisoners up, but to no avail. The prisoners were still at their independent states and the guards were new to their power-laden role. This marked the first of the many confrontations between the two groups.
Punishments and Rebellion
Push-ups can be seen as common and minimal punishment in cells, however not when its for a reason other than recreation. As a result of not following the guards’ orders, prisoners were forced to do push ups, with some guards stepping on their backs or asking other prisoners to do it. Dominance was clearly showing up at this early stage of the study that experimenters didn’t expect.
On the morning of the second day, what happened took everyone by surprise. The prisoners started a rebellion by removing their stocking caps, ripping off their prison ID numbers, and barricading their cells by putting their beds against the door. They also started cursing and taunting the guards, which boiled anger and frustration from the latter.
The guards on duty called reinforcements and together with the morning and mid shifters, the 9 guards shot a fire extinguisher at the cells to push the prisoners away from the doors. They broke in and stripped the prisoners naked, took their beds out, and forced the ringleader into solitary confinement. They also began to harass and intimidate the prisoners for all their worth.
One of the guards decided to use psychological tactics instead of physical ones, and that amounted to creating a “privilege cell”. One of the three rooms was turned into the privilege cell where prisoners who least participated in the rebellion get to enjoy. The perks of having their beds back, their dresses, and brushing their teeth were just few of the many. They also get to eat while bad prisoners were starved.
Sooner after that, the bad prisoners were then put in the privilege cell, making them think that some of them may be informants of the guards, thus crumbling their trust with each other. A very smart tactic according to the former prisoner consultant, as this is being used in real prisoners to break alliances and solidarity.
The rebellion may have broken the prisoners’ but it strengthened the guards’ unity. They became more aggressive and controlling. Every aspect of prison life fell under their control that even using the toilet became a privilege that guards could deny at his whim. They enforced a 10 PM lockdown when prisoners were only allowed to urinate and defecate in a bucket, and more often than not, guards did not allow prisoners to empty these buckets, making the cell smell which further added to the degrading quality of the environment.
Prisoner #5401, or the ringleader, specifically got the most punishments. As confirmed in his emails, he’s a self-styled radical activist who mistakenly thought that the study was to expose and control student radicals. He even planned to sell the story after it’s over to an underground newspaper. Unfortunately, his assumptions were wrong as the Stanford Prison Experiment was not what he expected.
The First Person Out and the Escape Plot
One and a half days in jail and Prisoner #8612 began having acute emotional disturbance, disorganized thinking, uncontrollable crying, and rage. At first, the experimenters thought it was only his way to be released. They decided to let him talk to a consultant who chided him to be weak, then later offered him to be an informant in exchange for no further guard harassment. He was given time to think it over.
“You can’t leave. You can’t quit!” were the first words he told the other prisoners as soon as he arrived at the cells. This heightened the prisoners’ fear and tension for being really imprisoned. Prisoner #8612 then went crazy by screaming, cursing, and going outrageous which convinced the experimenters that he really has to be released.
The following day, the experimenters held a visiting hour but they were smart enough to think that if the parents see the situation of their sons in jail, they might insist taking them home. So before they arrived, the experimenters manipulated everything by making the cells look clean and benign. The prisoners were washed, shaved, groomed and fed a big dinner. Even a music plays in the intercom. An attractive former cheerleader at Stanford was assigned to greet the visitors.
Even the visitors were unknowingly put as players in the prison drama as middle-class adults, complying with the rules set up by the Zimbardo himself. Before entering the visiting area, they had to discuss their son’s case with the warden. Only two visitors are allowed with a 10-minute time, accompanied by a guard all throughout. The parents did not complain with all the rules despite seeing their sons looked distressed.
Soon after the parents leave, a rumor has spread that a mass escape plot was going to take place headed by the prisoner they’d released the night before, Prisoner #8612 along with his outside friends. Instead of acting like experimental social psychologists by recording the pattern of rumor transmission and observe the impending escape, the experimenters acted like actual prison authorities who was concerned over the security of their prison.
Zimbardo, acting as the prison warden, transferred the prisoners to the fifth floor of the building after his request to transfer them to Palo Alto Police Station was turned down. He planned that he will be sitting alone in the basement, waiting for the intruders to tell them that the study has ended and all the participants were taken home.
A surprise visit came in the form of his colleague instead, Gordon Bower, who simply asked what the independent variable is in the study. A simple question that made Zimbardo angry but he later realized his mistake. Zimbardo was, indeed, thinking like a prison superintendent instead of a research psychologist and as such, there were many errors made in the Stanford Prison Experiment.
The Call for Help
The rumor proved to be just only a rumor. Zimbardo was so upset that they’ve wasted too much efforts without collecting data in return. He then asked the guards to specifically heightened their aggression, and the guards did as told.
On the latter days of the study before termination, a priest was invited to talk to the prisoners. He asked them what they need to get out of prison, and the answers were the same: a lawyer. He then offered to contact their parents to talk about legal action and some of the prisoners agreed. Only one didn’t want to talk to the priest and would rather see a doctor: Prisoner #819.
Eventually, Prisoner #819 was convinced to talk to the priest. After that, he was given the chance to rest in a room adjacent to the yard, where he could feel better and eat. While he was resting, one of the guards lined up other prisoners and had them chant aloud, “Prisoner #819 is a bad prisoner. Because of what Prisoner #819 did, my cell is a mess, Mr. Correctional Officer.” A chant repeated a dozen times, with full conformity and compliance, which was very far from their first day’s disorganized and fun chant.
Zimbardo immediately went to find Prisoner #819 sobbing uncontrollably in his room. He said to him, “Listen, you are not Prisoner #819, you are (his name), my name is Dr. Zimbardo, I am a psychologist, not a prison superintendent, and this is not a real prison. This is just an experiment, and those are students, not prisoners, just like you.” With that, Prisoner #819 calmed down and came with Dr. Zimbardo.
The following day, a Parole Board Meeting was held headed by the former prisoner consultant. All prisoners were asked if they are willing to forfeit the money they’ve earned to get out of prison and surprisingly, most of them said yes. This is because the prisoners no longer think this is just an experiment, but rather a real prison. The former prisoner consultant told them to go while he thinks about whether to approve their requests. Later he realized that he too, became the monster he hated, the person who denied his own parole for 16 years.
Prisoner #416 was newly admitted as one of the standby prisoners. The old timer ones told him that quitting is impossible, which blown Prisoner #416 to ultimate horror. He went on a hunger strike and the guards put him in solitary confinement for doing so. They let him spend 3 hours in there instead of the standard one hour.
Other prisoners saw Prisoner #416 as a troublemaker, and the guards took it as an opportunity to heightened their punishment. They asked the remaining prisoners if they were willing to give up their blankets to free Prisoner #416, and their answers took the experimenters by surprise. The humane attitude towards one another was replaced with selfishness and their own survival. They said no and would rather have Prisoner #416 spend his time in solitary confinement.
The experimenters then decided it was time to terminate the study for two good reasons: First, they noticed that the guards had been increasing their aggressiveness and brutality towards the prisoners when they thought no one was watching and second, a Stanford Ph.D Christina Maslach, visited the prison and was shocked by its lack of morality.
Thus, the experiment was terminated on August 20, 1971 , only after 6 days. An open session was held between the participants in the study. Prisoners were happy that it was over while the guards, obviously, were not.
In later studies following this one, reports emphasize that the Stanford Prison Experiment promoted hostile environments in which they let the guards do whatever they wanted which was not the case in real life prisons. However, if we are to rely on this study, then we may conclude that normal people have the tendency to be cruel or submissive when placed in certain roles in life.
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