By Jordan T.

On August 14, 1971, a traumatic event began. It was called The Stanford Prison Experiment. Over the course of six days, a highly unusual social psychology study on human behavior occurred. In this article, I will explain what the experiment was, who was in charge of it, and what happened during the experience.

The first thing that people should know about the Stanford Prison Experiment is that it was conducted by Professor Philip G. Zimbardo.  Professor Zimbardo was an American psychologist who studied behavior. He was the founder of the experiment. This trained professional decided to conduct an experiment to see how people react to power and how the powerful treat the powerless. He felt that the best place to conduct his experiment was in a fake prison.

Professor Zimbardo decided to advertise his study in the Stanford University newspaper. College-aged participants who chose to be a part of his experiment would get paid for their involvement. They were expected to participate in the experiment which would last two weeks. There were 24 participants, 12 guards (the powerful) and 12 prisoners (the powerless), with Zimbardo acting as the prison warden. It is stated on that: “Guards were instructed to do whatever they thought was necessary to maintain law and order in the prison and to command the respect of the prisoners. No physical violence was permitted. Zimbardo observed the behavior of the prisoners and guards (as a researcher), and also acted as a prison warden.” The guards, in the simplest terms, were able to do whatever seemed right as long as they didn’t abuse the prisoners. The prisoners were referred to by number to dehumanize them.

When the experiment started, everything was fine. Things were fine until the prisoners got bored and decided to retaliate against the guards. This is where things began to go terribly wrong. When this retaliation happened, the guards saw that they had to inflict physical punishments on the prisoners, which is exactly what Professor Zimbardo told them they were not allowed to do. The guards didn’t just use physical punishments; they also used punishments like time-outs, but these time-outs were different. These time-outs would drive the prisoners to the breaking point and cause them to go mentally insane.  The guards would put the prisoners in a tiny room. It was not big enough to sit or to move. Many of the prisoners had to be taken out of the experiment because of this. But the strangest part was that Zimbardo, acting as the Prison Warden, was watching them the whole time and saw the abuse that he instructed them not to do. 

It wasn’t until Professor Zimbardo’s girlfriend came to visit and witnessed the abuse being used in the experiment that matters changed.  The professor’s girlfriend threatened to break up with him unless he ended the 2-week experiment on the 6th day. Zimbardo ended the experiment and still saw nothing wrong with what was going on in the fake prison. Later, the guards were interviewed and all of them said the same things. They would respond by saying that they thought the prisoners were acting, they thought the prisoners deserved it, or they didn’t know they were capable of that sort of harm. Many stated that they didn’t know what came over them. Unfortunately, if Zimbardo’s girlfriend had not come to the experiment, it most likely would have gone on for the designated two weeks. 

Another weird fact about this experiment was that the prisoners were allowed to leave whenever they wanted to. They could have stopped participating at any time. Also, all of the men had the same thing in common; they were all young, white male middle college students with no prison record or mental illnesses. They allowed themselves to undergo harsh treatment. Some believed that they were in an actual prison. Perhaps, they lost their sense of reality. 

In the end, the experiment was shown to have many flaws. It made people think about how conditions can affect behavior. It made people wonder why the guards were so cruel and why the prisoners chose to stay instead of leave. It also made many people wonder why Professor Zimbardo saw nothing wrong with how the prisoners were constantly being physically assaulted and why none of the guards tried to stop each other or try to make sure they followed the guidelines that they were given. 

In conclusion, the whole study done on these college students should bring up the question of “Why?” to any mind that has learned about this unfortunate study. From this failed experiment, we should walk away asking questions about ourselves. It should cause us to examine our circumstances. We can begin to consider what we might do when we find ourselves in a position of too much power or what we would do when in a position of too little power.

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Warning: Some photos contain graphic material.

Works Cited:

Zimbardo, Philip, Craig Haney W. Curtis Banks, and David Jaffe “ THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT: A Simulation Study of the Psychology of Imprisonment at Stanford University.” August 1971, Accessed July 2022.

Toppo, Greg. “Time to Dismiss the Stanford Prison Experiment?”. 20, June 2018, Accessed July 2022.

Miller, Brook. “Zimbardo prison study The Stanford prison experiment”. 3, April 2015, Accessed June 2022.

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