The Stanford Experiment: Scientific Breakthrough or Psychological Torture

Guard-Student | Courtesy of the official website of The Stanford Prison Experiment

It was a quiet Sunday morning on August 14 in 1971 in Palo Alto, California, where a prison was being constructed in the basement of Stanford University in order to test and examine the effects of simulated confinement on prisoners and guards. This would mark the start of a terrible experience for the participants of a psychology experiment that has been labeled “iconic.”

Psychologist Philip George Zimbardo was in charge of conducting a prison simulation designed to study the effects of an institution on an individual’s behavior. The case study illustrated the human brain attraction towards overriding power during a situation that can transform good people into authoritarians and sadists. The study illuminates the dark side of human nature, which can emerge under the right set of circumstances.1 There are serious objections to the findings and approaches used in this “classical” experiment. The published results of the experiment are considered by some scholars to be questionable.2 The experimental techniques that were used in order to study the effects of authoritative attitudes, roles, and social influences on the human brain were proven to be cruel and inhuman.

Naked Prisoner| courtesy of the official website of The Stanford Prison Experiment

The prison simulation was organized using two processes: de-individualization and dehumanization. The process of de-individualization was conducted by having the guards hide behind a disguise, stripping the participants of their identity and forcing them to create a new one. Using uniforms, badges, ranks, and titles, half of the participants were placed in the role of a dominant. The guards instructed the prisoners to address to them as “Mr. Corrections Officer,” all of which fueled sadistic behaviors, which they directed toward the inmates.3 The effect of the fake “Prison Institution” dramatically influenced the behavior of the student-guards. By creating a new identity, the participants were stripped of their old identities and were encouraged to assume the role of an authoritative alpha male.4 The inmates wore gown dresses, which were undignified and stripped away their individuality by making them feel uniform and feminine. It is important to note that neither the guards nor the prisoners suffered from emotional problems before the start of the experiment. In order to keep bias to a minimum, researchers randomly assigned the participants to their roles by using the coin toss method.

The mistreatment of the inmates was a form of depersonalization, an action that stripped human characteristics or individuality from the participants.5 The punishment brought by the guards over the inmates resulted in a mental breakdown among the prisoners as they were asked to perform exhausting exercises, placed in solitary confinement, given restricted privileges and mindless activities. Was the approach to test Zimbardo’s hypothesis reasonable or too extreme? The answer is yes, because “research participant-inmates were no longer individual students, but a collective caricature of prison dwellers.1 The imprisonment caused the prisoners to develop submissive behavior, the roles ossifying as the experiment unfolded and eventually unraveled. The extent to which the experiment was taken demonstrated that even a small period of time in confinement can cause dramatic changes in human behavior.2 The results were a clear testimony to the short-term mental repercussions in a group of seemingly healthy young men.

Zimbardo was responsible for developing a contract that stated the rules of the experiment. He gave the guards enough freedom to engage with the prisoners, but, he stated to them that they had to maintain order in the prison with no acts of violence.2 In addition, skepticism arises in Zimbardo experimental approach, which encouraged the abuse by the guards. He most certainly supported the abuse by taking on himself the role of prison superintendent. In doing so, he lost a proper perspective and reasonable judgment when conducting the experiment.

#8612 Leaves the Study| Courtesy of the official website of The Stanford Prison Experiment

The bystander effect is a social-psychological phenomenon in which people are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present. There was evident proof of the bystander effect in the experiment, since the morality of the good guards was influenced by those who allowed the cruelest actions. The psychological aspect of the experiment proved to have some correlation to the concept of survival of the fittest; however, this does not account for the inhuman treatment. The dominant guards, who were physically and mentally abusive, created a natural hierarchy of leaders and followers, setting the stage and atmosphere for the guards to imitate and revel in the sadistic treatment of inmates. The intimidation of the alpha guards and the superintendent drove good guards to commit unexpected actions. “The inaction of others, especially the leadership, led the ‘good’ guards to conclude that the situation must be acceptable, which is an example of pluralistic ignorance and social proof.”1 The pressure of the prison forced some of the inmates to become emotionally damaged, as one of the students decided to attempt an escape. This caused a rebellion in protest of the harsh conditions of prison life. The revolt was followed by more mistreatment by the guards in order to prevent future bursts of opposition.

In the field of classical psychology, the Stanford Prison Experiment is one of the most recognized and controversial experiments. The prison simulation was created to bring realism to the experiment. The participants were subjected to a series of events that emulated the arrest of an individual. Zimbardo tried to dramatized the arrest by asking the Palo Alto Police Department to arrest the students and complete a real-life booking process. The psychological pressure started by submitting the participants to a strip-search, fingerprinting, photographing, and the assignment of numbers.1

The selection process of the experiment was unbiased, as participants were thoroughly assessed for any signs of mental illness, medical disabilities, and personality or character problems.1 Their screenings were conducted in order to ensure the safety of the participants and the validity of the experiment.

The stress of the experiment has driven the scientific community to question the purpose of the experiment. What happens when you place a stable individual in an unfamiliar and stressful situation? Did the participants experience a psychotic break due to the reality of the dramatic simulation of prison life? The prisoners were neglected by the guards in various ways. For example, the convicts were sleep deprived, sexually humiliated, physically abused, and placed in solitary confinement.1 The psychological strain of the experiment drove many of the participants to leave the radical study.

Cleaning a Toilet as Punishment| Courtesy of the official website of The Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment was terminated on August 20, 1971, after only six days of observation. Scientists ensure that extensive interviews were conducted by professional staff on the participants in order to determine whether they were permanently affected by the experiment.2 In other words, they tested them to ensure that none suffered from any long-term effects of post-traumatic stress. Zimbardo was then forced to end the study. He debriefed the participants to understand their experience and to address any chronic mental health problems they might have.

Years after the Stanford Prison Experiment, Thomas Carnahan and Sam McFarland recreated the famous case study in order to test the validity of the researchers’ approach. Carnahan and McFarland’s hypothesis tested whether students who volunteered for a similar case study might exhibit similar symptoms.14 In order to gather their subjects, researchers posted an ad in the newspaper advertising the study. The message included the term “prison life” while the ad for the Stanford Prison Experiment had not. “Those who volunteered for the ‘prison study’ scored significantly higher on measures of aggressiveness and authoritarianism, which are directly related to the propensity toward aggressive abuse, and lower on empathy and altruism, which are inversely related to the propensity toward aggressive abuse.”1 The results gathered in the experiment demonstrate skepticism in the data gathered from the Stanford prison experiment, which demonstrate the relationship between a person’s behavior and the environment. The skepticism that surrounded the Stanford Prison Experiment was due to the unethical approach taken by Zimbardo. The mistreatment of the inmates was taken to the next level.1 The experiment was ended at the sixth day out of the scheduled fourteen days due to the increase in the prisoner’s mental instability and emotional trauma, and the escalating abuse of the guards. Based on the overwhelming evidence, one can see that the experiment did not prove its purpose. It was only a psychological torture to young undergraduate men.

 

  1. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2016, s.v. “Stanford Prison Experiment,” by Author J. Lurigio.
  2. David Bornus, “The Stanford Prison Experiment: The Fundamentals of a Secure Residential Environment,” Corrections Today, Vol. 78 (June 2016): 48.
  3. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2016, s.v. “Stanford Prison Experiment,” by Author J. Lurigio.
  4. Teresa C. Kulig, Travis C. Pratt, and Francis T. Cullen, “Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment: A Case Study in Organized Skepticism,” Journal of Criminal Justice Education, Vol. 28 (March 2017): 82.
  5. Teresa C. Kulig, Travis C. Pratt, and Francis T. Cullen, “Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment: A Case Study in Organized Skepticism,” Journal of Criminal Justice Education, Vol.28 (March 2017): 90.
  6. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2016, s.v. “Stanford Prison Experiment,” by Author J. Lurigio.
  7. David Bornus, “The Stanford Prison Experiment: The Fundamentals of a Secure Residential Environment,” Corrections Today, Vol. 78 (June 2016): 48.
  8. David Bornus, “The Stanford Prison Experiment: The Fundamentals of a Secure Residential Environment,” Corrections Today, Vol. 78 (June 2016): 48.
  9. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2016, s.v. “Stanford Prison Experiment,” by Author J. Lurigio.
  10. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2016, s.v. “Stanford Prison Experiment,” by Author J. Lurigio.
  11. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2016, s.v. “Stanford Prison Experiment,” by Author J. Lurigio.
  12. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2016, s.v. “Stanford Prison Experiment,” by Author J. Lurigio.
  13. David Bornus, “The Stanford Prison Experiment: The Fundamentals of a Secure Residential Environment,” Corrections Today, Vol. 78 (June 2016): 48.
  14. Teresa C. Kulig, Travis C. Pratt, and Francis T. Cullen, “Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment: A Case Study in Organized Skepticism,” Journal of Criminal Justice Education, Vol.28 (March 2017): 77.
  15. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2016, s.v. “Stanford Prison Experiment,” by Author J. Lurigio.
  16. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2016, s.v. “Stanford Prison Experiment,” by Author J. Lurigio.
The Stanford Experiment: Scientific Breakthrough or Psychological Torture
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The Stanford Experiment: Scientific Breakthrough or Psychological Torture

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  • one word …wow. I’ve never really studied psychology but even I can definitely say that this odd experiment was doomed to fail before it started and was just cruel. If there is anything that could be said in the experiments defense ;it is that it very quickly began showing results in terms of good, and stable people becoming corrupted and acting out of their norms. And the fact that the man who came up with the experiment joined in on the experiment as the “prison superintendent”; this is just me thinking “out loud” but it sounds to me like he was more living out a fantasy than conducting an honest experiment for insight into the human mind. Despite its horrible outcomes, this is another valuable lesson of DO NOT DO THIS and also a very well constructed and enlightening article, had to do a few double takes to make sure I read it right; though of no fault to the writer its just I was mind blown that something like this even happened. Excellent work and thank you for a good story.

  • I originally heard about the Stanford Prison experiment when the documentary film came out in 2015, and i was completely baffled at the experiment plot. This article allowed me to understand more in depth of the details of the experiment such as what the “inmates” had to wear and go through and explain the horrorities of the exeriment to the point where the 2 week experiment lasted 6 days.

  • I found this article extremely shocking. It is about this experiment that took place in Stanford and wanted to study group behavior against individuals. It really surprised me to find out how people bend their morals when the circumstances change. It is obvious that they would have never acted the way they did. I wonder how they would have behaved if they knew what the experiment was really about.

  • Zimbardo’s prisoners experiments are considered “iconic” for reasons unique in comparison to other famous groundbreaking experiments. Where other researchers and their work led to innovations and pride among the scientific community, Zimbardo’s experiments leave shame. As a student research and science major, I’ve been exposed to the strict and necessary research protocols instilled in modern laboratories. These protocols ensure that we act humane in scientific discovery. Zimbardo’s discoveries in human psychology do not justify the means by which he achieved his results. This point in history serves as a reminder of how we must as responsibly with the power scientific research has afforded us.

  • This article amazes me in the fact that this “Experiment” was allowed to be even conducted in the first place. Reason being that having such a realistic simulation based off a real life situation that can actually happen is sure to have results as post traumatic stress disorder like claimed. This experiment was easily inhuman but seemingly the students had every right to pull away from the experiment like many did, which brings rise to this experiment being so controversial as stated in writing. Stated as “All participants should have the capability to make their decision to do the experiment through their own will” and that “The experiments should not harm the participants in any crucial way”. In general although Philip George Zimbardo hoped to see the effects and rise in authoritarians and sadists characteristics the experiment came out to be something immoral and inhumanly wrong and seemed to have more to it then just those affects being raised.

  • This article shows the cruelty these poor people faced. I know they made this into a movie and one time I came across it. What is mentioned in this article and what happened in that movie match very well. I can’t believe they actually put people though that, it should have had never been tested or tested in a different way. This is a well-organized article though, lots of research went into it.

  • This article conveys The Stanford Experiment, which is an inhumane experiment that was conducted by Philip George Zimbardo. The study included a series of cruelty upon a person and the effects on their behavior. I believe this experiment should have ended far before it actually did. Although the results of such cruelty was efficient in Dr. Zimbardos favor, acts like these are not recommended. Morality concerns the difference between right and wrong, however this experiment includes a group of people who ignore general morals.

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