The stanford prison experiment

I watched a movie yesterday called “das experiment” which was based on the Stanford prison experiment. The movie was pretty good (with some weak links) but it was a really thought provoking movie as the real story is.

The experiment is simple. Stanford wanted to see the effect of prison life on guards and prisoners. So it gathered 24 male college students selected from around 70 total applicants and tested them psychologically. They found that all of them are pretty normal on all the tests. The experiment conducted the summer of 1971

Then they chose 8 men randomly to be the guards and the rest 12 were the prisoners. The jail was one of the floors in the Stanford University. They re-adjusted the offices to become jails with barred doors and closed the main hallway so it will be a closed area. The idea of the experiment was to stress the prisoners so they added multiple pretty stressful conditions, which don’t exist in a typical jail to expedite the effects of prisons. After all, the experiment was for only 2 weeks.

Examples of the extra humiliation was getting them naked at the beginning and dressing them with very baggy dress clothes without even underwear, just a baggy garment, closer to a big shirt. They gave the prisoners stocking to put on their hair instead of shaving it and they gave prisoners numbers and forbid them from referring to each other by a different means. That was to destroy their individuality. These things shown huge effect on the prisoners almost instantly, they started to walk and sit less manly and more like an embarrassed woman as soon as they were dressed without underwear.

you can read the details in the link. it is very interesting

The main thing that stood out from this experiment is how much the people got sucked into their roles. At the beginning as you would expect, all were joking, prisoners and guards and they didn’t fully take it seriously, but in less than a day, the guards became significantly more aggressive (no violence were allowed, but punishments were) and prisoners became more depressed and broken. The morning of the second day (after around 24 hours) the prisoners rebelled by barricading their cells with their bunk beds. The guards frustrated and feeling humiliated from the insults of the prisoners took a fire extinguisher and sprayed the prisoners with chill carbon dioxide into submission and they took off their clothes and their beds and made them stay in their cells naked as a punishment.

From that moment on, the prisoners became much more like prisoners and guards like guards. The guards became more sadistic in their punishment, it started with simple pushups, but then it became solitary confinement which was limited to 1 hour by the experimenters but the guards would put people there for three hours. They would humiliate the prisoners more often. They would make them clean the bathrooms with bare hands. They prevented them from going to the bathroom and only gave them a bucket in their cells instead which they didn’t clean intentionally. Things got out of hand very fast. Because of the arbitrary group punishment or the almost random selective privileges given to prisoners, the prisoners became more separated and the guards became more close to each other. It almost became a war between them, the sadistic guards and the mentally and physically broken prisoners. In a period of 5 days, some prisoners broke down and cried hysterically, some developed a rash out of stress and some went almost crazy.

The experiment had to be shut down after the 5th day ONLY because it became so bad that is was comparative to abu ghraib and nazi prisons. They used the bags over head, and they did use stripping as punishment. The guards, who were very normal smart college students, became very sadistic and the prisoners became so depressed and broken that they really lived the role.

A strange incident shows how broken the prisoners were. the prisoners were presented to a parole committee, the committee asked the prisoners after 3 or 4 days of imprisonment “if we offer you instant release but we won’t give you the money we promised if you finish the experiment, would you take the offer?” the prisoners said they will and the committee said “we will look into it tomorrow”.

The funny thing about this, this is an experiment and ANY OF THEM HAVE the choice to leave the prison at any moment and not get paid, YET they were waiting for the approval of the committee. The approval for something they can do by their own. It is scary how fast everyone got sucked into this role.

My friend relates this to sports where people start thinking that they NEED to win so badly even though nothing at all will happen either way. The guards felt like they HAVE to control the prisoner no matter what. And the prisoners’ sole goal became to survive. I strongly recommend reading the link I sent. It is very interesting and in-depth perspective into human beings.

The main point that researchers take from this experiment than normal people can become monsters once given power. Scary thought. What do you think?

The movie link

The experiment link again

8 thoughts on “The stanford prison experiment

  1. I haven’t logged in a long time. Something doesn’t fit quite right. Stanford students are supposed to be, besides having a high IQ, charismatic or at least do not possess weak characters. Anyone who would be faced by something that they absolutely refuse or find explicitly unnerving while having the option to stop would stop it. I mean, some guy started going crazy 36 hours after the start of the experiment.. 1. He could’ve quit. 2. They should’ve let him out!

    Are there any recordings of the actual experiment? This is another case of me arguing against what actually happened but I really would love to know why no one remembered their “Get-out” card? No explanation exists in the link.

    1. is a half hour long video with clips from the actual experiment & Zimardo himself making some of the commentary. In answer to (1) when one of the “prisoners” tried to quit his request was denied & he was not allowed to leave. He went back & told the others that there was no way to get out of the experiment which completely undermined the the others’ sense of control overt he situation. (2) yes they should have and this type of unethical behavior on the part of the researcher led to much stricter ethical guidelines for researchers and more stringent review of all research prior to implementation by outside sources.

    2. Also, not everyone understood they were in the experiment. From Zimbardos paper:
      “With the cooperation of the Palo Alto City Police Department all of the subjects assigned to the prisoner treatment were unexpectedly “arrested” at their residences. A police officer charged them with suspicion of burglary or armed robbery, advised them of their legal rights, handcuffed them, thoroughly searched them (often as curious neighbors looked on) and carried them off to the police station in the rear of a police car. At the station they went through the standard routines of being fingerprinted, having an identification file prepared and then being placed in a detention cell. Each prisoner was blindfolded and subsequently driven by one of the experimenters and a subject-guard to our mock prison. Throughout the entire arrest procedure, the police officers involved maintained a formal, serious attitude, avoiding answering any questions of clarification as to the relation of this “arrest” to the mock prison study. Upon arrival at our experimental prison, each prisoner was stripped, sprayed with a delousing preparation ( a deodorant spray) and made to stand alone naked for a while in the cell yard. After being given the uniform described previously and having an I.D. picture taken (“mug shot”), the prisoner was put in his cell and ordered to remain silent.”

      Because the “arrests” were made by actual police, as far as the participants knew, these were real charges, especially since the officers wouldn’t answer questions about the connection between the arrest and the experiment.

      1. true, but that was part of the experiment, and while the prisoners were confused for those couple of hours, they knew they were in an experiment afterwards. they used real police to simulate what an actual prisoner would feel like, the humiliation of being arrested is part of the factors under study, not to fool them into thinking that this is a real prison.

  2. Have you read the link i gave you? it has all my information, i would guess the rest will be in the published papers and books about this experiment.

    the reason i implicitly took from the experiment on why they didn’t quit. that human beings are so adaptive, that we emerge ourselves completely in the role we are doing. i can see how that is a good survival technique.

    the fact that those charismatic people became like this is one of the most fascinating part of this experiment. They didn’t stop anyone from leaving the “prison” there was some pressure to stay though. but as any experiment, they r not allowed by law to prevent them from leaving if they wish to quit the experiment.

    go through the slides of the experiment, they were interesting. maybe i should get the book or some of the publications as well

  3. Thanks for shedding some light on this, Lillith. The fact that they were arrested gives a new perspective to the whole experiment.

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