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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63 Comments

  • I feel that we would not be too far off to say that Zimbardo fell victim to the bystander effect here too. I read before that his colleagues were trying to convince him to shut down the operation much sooner than he did, but that he persisted even though the experiment was getting out of hand. I would not go so far as to say that it “only” served to torture the young men. Although it was extremely disturbing, people have taken away many lesson from this study throughout the years. It has given people a basis of what people are capable of when given power over other human beings which I think was important to understand.

  • This was such a well written article it set the tone and really made me feel as if I was there. I had some knowledge of the Stanford Experiment before reading this article. It is sad to say that individuals abused their power and truly scarred the prisoners for life. This approach was really damaging that it had to be stopped.

  • It really broke my heart to read such an article. The harsh realities of solitary confinement a hard to come to terms with when they cause such harsh outcomes. I understand that solitary confinement is a form of punishment but to find out that some of the convicts were even physically and mentally abused, sleep deprived, and sexually humiliated is incredibly inhumane. The form of punishment is not supposed to be a form of humiliation, but rather a lesson learned.

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