The Stanford Prison Experiment

“I was sitting there all alone, waiting anxiously for the intruders to break in, when who should happen along but a colleague and former Yale graduate student roommate, Gordon Bower. Gordon had heard we were doing an experiment, and he came to see what was going on. I briefly described what we were up to, and Gordon asked me a very simple question: “Say, what’s the independent variable in this study?”

To my surprise, I got really angry at him. Here I had a prison break on my hands. The security of my men and the stability of my prison was at stake, and now, I had to deal with this bleeding-heart, liberal, academic, effete dingdong who was concerned about the independent variable! It wasn’t until much later that I realized how far into my prison role I was at that point – that I was thinking like a prison superintendent rather than a research psychologist.” – Philip Zombardo

In August of 1971, Philip Zombardo from Stanford University conducted an experiment to evaluate the effects of becoming a prisoner or a prison guard. The experimenters selected 24 white male students as participants. Half were assigned the role of prisoner while the other half were assigned the role of prison guard. The experiment was supposed to run for two weeks but it was terminated after six days.

Those who were assigned as prisoners, were picked up and processed by real police officers before being brought to the “Stanford Prison” which was set up in the basement of a psychology building. The prisoners wore smocks with no underwear, a chain around the ankle, and a women’s stocking on their heads.

The guards were allowed to make any rules they wanted so long as the prisoners were not physically injured. They wore khakis and a khaki shirt, sunglasses, and they carried a billy club.

While it was awkward at first, the guards quickly established their power by forcing the prisoners to do push ups and memorize their numbers. The prisoners could only be referred to as their numbers. Prisoners attempted to rebel, but they were punished in various ways including allowing special privileges to those who did not rebel. Using the toilet even became a privilege.

(23:38) “The guards made a deal and they gave the prisoners this choice. They said 416 could come out of solitary if they were all willing to give up their blanket or they could leave 416 in solitary all night and only one person elected to give up the blanket.”

The prisoners proceeded to have mental breakdowns and even began to shun and punish their fellow prisoners for rebelling. The experiment ended early due to the prisoners actually believing they were prisoners and that there was no way out.

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