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The Stanford prison experiment was a study of the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. The experiment was conducted at Stanford University from August 14 to August 20 of 1971 by a team of researchers led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo. It was funded by the US Office of Naval Research and was of interest to both the US Navy and Marine Corps as an investigation into the causes of conflict between military guards and prisoners.
Twenty-four male students out of 75 were selected to take on randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison situated in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. The participants adapted to their roles well beyond Zimbardo's expectations, as the guards enforced authoritarian measures and ultimately subjected some of the prisoners to psychological torture. Many of the prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse and, at the request of the guards, readily harassed other prisoners who attempted to prevent it. The experiment even affected Zimbardo himself, who, in his role as the superintendent, permitted the abuse to continue. Two of the prisoners quit the experiment early and the entire experiment was abruptly stopped after only six days. Certain portions of the experiment were filmed and excerpts of footage are publicly available.
Zimbardo and his team aimed to test the hypothesis that the inherent personality traits of prisoners and guards are the chief cause of abusive behavior in prison. Participants were recruited and told they would participate in a two-week prison simulation. Out of 70 respondents, Zimbardo and his team selected the 24 males whom they deemed to be the most psychologically stable and healthy. These participants were predominantly white and middle-class. The group was intentionally selected to exclude those with criminal background, psychological impairments or medical problems. They all agreed to participate in a 7 to 14 day period and received $15 per day (roughly equivalent to $85 in 2011).
The experiment was conducted in the basement of Jordan Hall (Stanford's psychology building). Twelve of the 24 participants were assigned the role of prisoner (9 plus 3 alternates), while the other twelve were assigned the role of guard (also 9 plus 3 alternates). Zimbardo took on the role of the superintendent, and an undergraduate research assistant the role of the warden. Zimbardo designed the experiment in order to induce disorientation, depersonalisation and deindividualisation in the participants.
The researchers held an orientation session for guards the day before the experiment, during which they instructed them not to physically harm the prisoners. In the footage of the study, Zimbardo can be seen talking to the guards: "You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can create a notion of arbitrariness that their life is totally controlled by us, by the system, you, me, and they'll have no privacy... We're going to take away their individuality in various ways. In general what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness. That is, in this situation we'll have all the power and they'll have none."
The researchers provided the guards with wooden batons in order to establish their status, clothing similar to that of an actual prison guard (khaki shirt and pants from a local military surplus store), and mirrored sunglasses to prevent eye contact. Prisoners wore uncomfortable ill-fitting smocks and stocking caps, as well as a chain around one ankle. Guards were instructed to call prisoners by their assigned numbers, sewn on their uniforms, instead of by name.
The prisoners were arrested at their homes and charged with armed robbery. The local Palo Alto police department assisted Zimbardo with the arrests and conducted full booking procedures on the prisoners, which included fingerprinting and taking mug shots. They were transported to the mock prison from the police station, where they were strip searched and given their new identities.
The small mock prison cells were set up to hold three prisoners each. There was a small space for the prison yard, solitary confinement, and a bigger room across from the prisoners for the guards and warden. The prisoners were to stay in their cells all day and night until the end of the study. The guards worked in teams of three for eight-hour shifts. The guards did not have to stay on site after their shift.
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After a relatively uneventful first day, on the second day the prisoners in Cell 1 blockaded their cell door with their beds and took off their stocking caps, refusing to come out or follow the guards' instructions. Guards from other shifts volunteered to work extra hours in order to assist in subduing the revolt, and subsequently attacked the prisoners with fire extinguishers without being supervised by the research staff. Finding that handling nine cell mates with only three guards per shift was challenging, one of the guards suggested that they use psychological tactics to control them. They set up a "privilege cell" in which prisoners who were not involved in the riot were treated with special rewards, such as higher quality meals. The "privileged" inmates chose not to eat the meal in order to stay uniform with their fellow prisoners. After only 36 hours, one prisoner began to act "crazy", as Zimbardo described: "#8612 then began to act crazy, to scream, to curse, to go into a rage that seemed out of control. It took quite a while before we became convinced that he was really suffering and that we had to release him."
Guards forced the prisoners to repeat their assigned numbers in order to reinforce the idea that this was their new identity. Guards soon used these prisoner counts to harass the prisoners, using physical punishment such as protracted exercise for errors in the prisoner count. Sanitary conditions declined rapidly, exacerbated by the guards' refusal to allow some prisoners to urinate or defecate anywhere but in a bucket placed in their cell. As punishment, the guards would not let the prisoners empty the sanitation bucket. Mattresses were a valued item in the prison, so the guards would punish prisoners by removing their mattresses, leaving them to sleep on concrete. Some prisoners were forced to be naked as a method of degradation. Several guards became increasingly cruel as the experiment continued; experimenters reported that approximately one-third of the guards exhibited genuine sadistic tendencies. Most of the guards were upset when the experiment concluded after only 6 days.
Zimbardo mentions his own absorption in the experiment. On the fourth day, some of the guards stated that they heard a rumor that the released prisoner was going to come back with his friends and free the remaining inmates. Zimbardo and the guards disassembled the prison and moved it onto a different floor of the building. Zimbardo himself waited in the basement, in case the released prisoner showed up, and planned to tell him that the experiment had been terminated. The released prisoner never returned, and the prison was rebuilt in the basement once again.
Zimbardo argued that the prisoners had internalized their roles, since, even though some had stated that they would accept "parole" even if it would mean forfeiting their pay, they did not quit when their parole applications were all denied. Zimbardo argued they had no reason for continued participation in the experiment after having lost all monetary compensation, yet they did, because they had internalized the prisoner identity.
Prisoner No. 416, a newly admitted stand-by prisoner, expressed concern over the treatment of the other prisoners. The guards responded with more abuse. When he refused to eat his sausages, saying he was on a hunger strike, guards confined him to "solitary confinement", a dark closet: "the guards then instructed the other prisoners to repeatedly punch on the door while shouting at 416." The guards stated that he would be released from solitary confinement only if the prisoners gave up their blankets and slept on their bare mattresses, which all but one refused to do.
Zimbardo aborted the experiment early when Christina Maslach, a graduate student he was then dating (and later married), objected to the conditions of the prison after she was introduced to the experiment to conduct interviews. Zimbardo noted that, of more than fifty people who had observed the experiment, Maslach was the only one who questioned its morality. After only six days of a planned two weeks' duration, the Stanford Prison experiment was discontinued.
On August 20, 1971, Zimbardo announced the end of the experiment to the participants. The results of the experiment have been argued to demonstrate the impressionability and obedience of people when provided with a legitimizing ideology and social and institutional support. The experiment has also been used to illustrate cognitive dissonance theory and the power of authority.
The results of the experiment favor situational attribution of behavior rather than dispositional attribution. In other words, it seemed that the situation, rather than their individual personalities, caused the participants' behavior. Under this interpretation, the results are compatible with the results of the Milgram experiment, in which ordinary people fulfilled orders to administer what appeared to be agonizing and dangerous electric shocks to a confederate of the experimenter.
Shortly after the study had been completed, there were bloody revolts at both the San Quentin and Attica prison facilities, and Zimbardo reported his findings on the experiment to the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary.
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The guards and prisoners adapted to their roles more than they were expected, stepping beyond the boundaries of what had been predicted, leading to dangerous and psychologically damaging situations. One-third of the guards were judged to have exhibited "genuine sadistic tendencies", while many prisoners were emotionally traumatized, as two of them had to be removed from the experiment early. After Maslach, a graduate student in psychology whom he was dating, confronted him and forced him to realize that he had been passively allowing unethical acts to be performed under his supervision, Zimbardo concluded that both prisoners and guards had become grossly absorbed in their roles and realized that he had likewise become as grossly absorbed in his own, and he terminated the experiment. Ethical concerns surrounding the experiment often draw comparisons to the Milgram experiment, which was conducted in 1961 at Yale University by Stanley Milgram, Zimbardo's former high school friend. Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. wrote in 1981 that the Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison experiment were frightening in their implications about the danger which lurks in the darker side of human nature.
Because of the structure of the experiment, Zimbardo found it impossible to keep traditional scientific controls in place. He was unable to remain a neutral observer, since he influenced the direction of the experiment as the prison's superintendent. Conclusions and observations drawn by the experimenters were largely subjective and anecdotal, and the experiment would be difficult for other researchers to reproduce.
Critics such as Erich Fromm challenged the generalization of the experiment's results. Fromm specifically wrote that the personality of an individual does affect behavior when imprisoned, using historical examples from the Nazi concentration camps. This ran counter to the study's conclusion that the prison situation itself controls the individual's behavior. Fromm also argued that the amount of sadism in the "normal" subjects could not be determined with the methods employed to screen them.
Some of the experiment's critics argued that participants were merely engaging in role-playing, basing their behavior on how they were expected to behave or modeling it after stereotypes about the behavior of prisoners and guards. In response, Zimbardo claimed that even if there was role-playing initially, participants internalized these roles as the experiment continued.
In contrast to Zimbardo's claim that participants were given no instructions about how to behave, his briefing of the guards gave them a clear sense that they should oppress the prisoners. In this sense, the study was an exploration of the effects of tyrannical leadership. In line with this, certain guards changed their behavior because of their desire to conform to the behavior that Zimbardo was trying to elicit.
Additionally, the study has been criticized on the basis of ecological validity. Many of the conditions imposed in the experiment were arbitrary and may not have correlated with actual prison conditions, including blindfolding incoming prisoners, not allowing them to wear underwear, not allowing them to look out of windows and not allowing them to use their names. Zimbardo argued that prison is a confusing and dehumanizing experience and that it was necessary to enact these procedures to put the prisoners in the proper frame of mind; however, he conceded that it was difficult to know how similar the effects were to an actual prison, and that the experiment's methods would be difficult to reproduce exactly.
Some said[who?] that the study placed undue emphasis on the cruelty of the guards, such as one who was nicknamed "John Wayne", and who said that he caused the escalation of events between guards and prisoners after he began to emulate a character from the Paul Newman film Cool Hand Luke. He further intensified his actions because he was nicknamed "John Wayne", even though he was trying to mimic actor Strother Martin, who had played the role of the sadistic Captain in the movie. Most of the other guards were kinder and often did favors for prisoners.
Also, it has been argued that selection bias may have played a role in the results. Researchers from Western Kentucky University recruited students for a study using an advertisement similar to the one used in the Stanford Prison Experiment, with and without the words "prison life". It was found that students volunteering for a prison life study possessed dispositions toward abusive behavior.
When the Abu Ghraib military prisoner torture and abuse scandal was publicized in March of 2004, many observers[who?] were immediately struck by its many similarities to the Stanford Prison experiment. Chief among them was Zimbardo himself, who paid close attention to the details of the story. He was dismayed by official military and government representatives' shifting the blame for the torture and abuses in the Abu Ghraib American military prison on to "a few bad apples" rather than acknowledging it as possibly systemic problems of a formally established military incarceration system.
Eventually, Zimbardo became involved with the defense team of lawyers representing one of the Abu Ghraib prison guards, Staff Sergeant Ivan "Chip" Frederick. He was granted full access to all investigation and background reports, and testified as an expert witness in SSG Frederick's court martial, which resulted in an eight-year prison sentence for Frederick in October 2004.
Zimbardo drew from his participation in the Frederick case to write the book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, published by Random House in 2007, which deals with the striking similarities between his own Stanford Prison Experiment and the Abu Ghraib abuses.
Alex Haslam and Steve Reicher, psychologists from the University of Exeter and University of St Andrews, conducted the BBC Prison Study in 2002. This was a partial replication of the Stanford Prison Experiment conducted with the assistance of the BBC, which broadcast events in the study in a documentary series called The Experiment. Their results and conclusions differed from Zimbardo's and led to a number of publications on tyranny, stress and leadership. Moreover, unlike results from the Stanford Prison Experiment, these were published in leading academic journals such as British Journal of Social Psychology, Journal of Applied Psychology, Social Psychology Quarterly and "Personality and Social Psychology Review". The BBC Prison Study is now taught as a core study on the UK A-level Psychology OCR syllabus.
While Haslam and Reicher's procedure was not a direct replication of Zimbardo's, their study casts further doubt on the generality of his conclusions. Specifically, it questions the notion that people slip mindlessly into role and the idea that the dynamics of evil are in any way banal. Their research also points to the importance of leadership in the emergence of tyranny of the form displayed by Zimbardo when briefing guards in the Stanford experiment.
The Third Wave was a 1967 recreation of Nazi Party dynamics by high school teacher Ron Jones in Palo Alto, California. Although the veracity of Jones' accounts has been questioned, several participants in the study have gone on record to confirm the events.
In April 2007, it was reported that high school students in Waxahachie, Texas, who were participating in a role-playing exercise, fell into a similar abusive pattern of behavior as exhibited in the original Stanford experiment.
Abu Ghraib and the experiment: