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