Stanford Prison Experiment

Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment was created to examine the potential causes of violence and violent behavior within prisons. The specific goal was “to study the behavioral and psychological consequences of becoming a prisoner and/or a prison guard.” In an attempt to demonstrate that prison environment was the cause of such brutal behavior, researchers designed an imitation prison within the walls of one of Stanford University’s psychology buildings. The prison experiment examined the behaviors of prisoners and guards within this imitation prison in order to evaluate the environment’s conditioning effects on both, prisoner and guard.

Using a corridor in the basement of the psychology building the researchers converted offices and storage areas to create three prison cells, a guards’ room, a warden’s office and a superintendent’s office. A small utility closet served as solitary confinement and the hallway itself was the prison yard. The far end of the hallway was screened off to allow for a hidden video camera to record everything that took place during the experiment.

Council for the experiment was sought from prison experts including an ex-con who previously served 17 years at San Quentin and Soledad Prisons. These “experts” were used in order to gain a level of precision in the prison design, environment and atmosphere surrounding the participants. Selections for the participants of the experiment were obtained utilizing volunteers. Researchers placed an advertisement in a local newspaper. The ad described the experiment as a, “psychological study of prison life”. All volunteers were required to be male college students. The researchers offered participants $15 a day for 1-2 weeks during the course of the experiment.

Of those who applied to participate, interviews and psychological tests were performed in order to weed out those that were not psychologically fit for the experiment. Researchers also rejected those with signs of drug use, medical disabilities and any criminal history. Of the 70 volunteers, 24 were selected as participants. These 24 individuals were then randomly selected to play the role of guard or prisoner. Before the experiment, there were no obvious differences between the two groups of volunteers.

Those who were played the role of a guard were given several rules before the experiment began. They were not allowed to hit the prisoners. However they could create feelings of boredom and a sense of frustration in the prisoners or an overall feeling of being controlled.

Those selected to play the role of prisoners were told to stay at their homes and await further instruction. Real police officers later came to their homes and arrested them individually; many were arrested in front of family and neighbors. Upon arrest, prisoners were searched, handcuffed and brought to the police station for booking. All prisoners were charged with falsified crimes. They were then taken to the simulated prison. Upon entering the prison prisoners were striped, issued a prison uniform and led to a cell. From this point forward prisoners were under the authority of those playing the role of prison guards. All activity that took place in the “prison yard” was videotaped, cells were audiotaped and frequent questioners were issued throughout the experiment. All of this material would later be used to examine the environmental effects that a prison has on prisoners and guards. Using this information, researchers’ goal was to test two current explanations behind prison violence. “The first was the dispositional hypothesis” – which focused on the types of people that generally run prisons, the guards, and those who are generally housed there, the prisoners. This idea placed blame for prison violence on the types of people who run them and incarcerated by them. This explanation considers the criminal behavior that lead prisoners to be incarcerated initially as an example of their violent nature. By bringing many of these individuals together within the prison system this results in the high levels of violence. Additionally, it also explains prison guards’ behavior by focusing on their tending to be a group whom are generally sadistic in nature. The job of a prison guard tends to attract a certain type of personality.

“The second explanation is the situational hypothesis- the prison environment itself creates brutal, dehumanizing conditions independent of the kinds of people who live and work in institutions.” Zimbardo’s prison experiment’s main goal was, “to study the behavioral and psychological consequences of becoming a prisoner or prison guard.” The experiment itself was to prove the situational hypothesis correct, by supplying a prison setting with guards and prisoners from a random sample of volunteers. The participants had equal backgrounds and all pasted psychological competency tests. Researchers recorded their interactions within the prison setting and the internal conditions that evolved.

The experiment’s evaluation on psychological effects the prison environment has on prisoners and guards were dependent on the prison itself. The simulation prison, created within the basement of the psychology building was the cornerstone of the experiment. Cells were designed and furnished to advance the overall feeling of the real prison. Added to the environment’s richness was the uniforms worn by guards and prisoners. The environment that was created was the independent variable that affected all participants. The actual effect that the prison environment had on each participant depended on their role during the experiment and how the perceived it. For the guards, the environment gave them a sense of power and control. For the prisoners’ it was one of subordination and submission.

As explained by Professor Zimbardo, relationships in which one person or group has authority over another or other can have psychological effects on both groups. The power and authority held by the prison guards in the experiment may be equated to an abusive husband or boyfriend, military working relationships and other such situations in which the less powerful of the relationship, feels imprisoned. Zimbardo spoke of the conditioning that self-imprisonment persons, with shy personalities, impose upon themselves. It can be seen that given situations of limited supervision and minimum restraint, a relationship in which one has complete authority over another, physical and psychological abuses may develop. As the experiment shows us, given the prison environment of which prisoners and guards must con-exist, policies need to be in place, which check or place a limit on the guards’ authority and unsupervised control over prisoners. Perhaps in both instances, the Stanford Prison Experiment and real prisons, including those that exist only during a time of war, better supervision or accessibility by outside authorities could control some of these abuses or alter the environment in which they exist.