Philip Zimbardo - Prison Study

Prison Study

In 1971, Zimbardo accepted a tenured position as professor of psychology at Stanford University. With a government grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research, he conducted the Stanford prison study in which 24 clinically sane individuals were randomly assigned to be "prisoners" or "guards" in a mock dungeon located in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford (three additional college students were selected as alternates, only one of whom participated in the study). The planned two-week study into the psychology of prison life ended after only six days due to emotional trauma being experienced by the participants. The students quickly began acting out their roles, with "guards" becoming sadistic and "prisoners" showing extreme passivity and depression.

The volunteers knew they were being used in a study but they did not know when the study would be taking place, so the initial shock of being randomly arrested one morning and taken to the mock prison put them in a mild state of shock. On arrival, the "prisoners" were stripped, searched, shaved and deloused, which caused a great deal of humiliation. They were then issued uniforms, ID numbers, and escorted to their cells by the volunteer prison guards. These changes isolated the prisoners making it harder for them to portray their individual characteristics. The guards themselves were not given any specific instruction or guidelines for the way they were to treat the prisoners. Instead, the psychologists allowed them to do whatever was needed to keep order in the prison. They were dressed very professionally in identical uniforms. They also wore a whistle around their neck and carried a night stick.

At the beginning of the experiment, Zimbardo started off with nine guards and nine prisoners. All the original volunteers were kept as backups and 3 prisoners as well as 3 guards occupied the prison at a time. Their first night in the prison, the volunteer prisoners were awakened at 2:30 AM by the guards blowing their whistles. They did this several times to familiarize the prisoners with how things were going to work and to let them know who was in charge.

The study shows that before the volunteer prisoners started showing signs of distress, they did not take the guards and their authority seriously. The prisoners mocked the guards, trying to regain their individuality. This, however, was short-lived. The prisoners soon realized that the attitude of the guards was very serious and that they demanded obedience. This began a long string of confrontational quarrels between the guards and prisoners. The guards used physical punishment and exercises, such as pushups, in order to show their authority to the prisoners.

In the morning of only the second day, a rebellion broke out among the volunteer prisoners. They ripped off their uniforms and locked themselves in their cells by pushing their beds up against the door. In response to this, the guards became very angry and called for backup assistance to the situation. This surprised Zimbardo as well as the rest of the psychologists because they had not thought it would be taken this far. Guards who were not on duty were called in and the guards who were assigned to only the night shift stayed with the guards who came in all the way through their shift the next morning. The tactic the guards came up with was to fight back in order to discipline the unruly prisoners and make them obey. In response to the prisoners barricading themselves in their cells, the guards used fire extinguishers on them to get them away from the entrances.

Once the guards were able to get into the cells, they stripped the inmates naked, tore apart the beds and the cell, and put the prisoners who had started the rebellion in solitary confinement. As all nine guards could not be on duty at once, they began rewarding the prisoners for good behavior. The prisoners who had not been involved in starting the riot were allowed to lie in their beds, wash themselves and brush their teeth and eat while those who had started the riot were not allowed to. The guards continued to use tormenting tactics to break up the prisoners relations with each other to avoid further organized resistance. In the case with one prisoner, who was a smoker, the guards were able to control his behavior because they decided when and if he was allowed to smoke.

Less than two full days into the experiment, one inmate began suffering from depression, uncontrolled rage, crying and other mental dysfunctions. The prisoner was eventually released after screaming and acting unstable in front of the other inmates. This prisoner was replaced with one of the alternates.

On the third day, the study allowed visiting hours for friends and family. The visitation was closely monitored and timed with many rules and restrictions.

The next event that added to the prison experiment "drama" was a rumored escape plan that the prisoners were planning on carrying out directly after visiting hours. The prisoner was going to have some of his friends round up, break into the prison and free all of the prisoners. After one of the guards overheard this plan, an informant was placed in among the prisoners and the escape never happened. The prisoners who had been thought to have organized the escape were disciplined and harassed with more pushups and toilet cleaning.

At some point, even the prisoners who were thought of as role models, those who obeyed all of the guards' commands were being punished. Going to the bathroom was considered a privilege rather than a necessity, and those who acted out against the guards were made to urinate and defecate in a bucket in their cell.

By the end of the experiment, there was no unification among prisoners as well as guards. The guards also had won complete control over all of their prisoners and were using their authority to its greatest extent. One prisoner had even gone as far as to go on a hunger strike. Refusing to eat, the guards put him into solitary confinement for three hours (even though their own rules stated the limit that a prisoner could be in solitary confinement was only one hour). Instead of the other prisoners looking at this inmate as a hero and following along in his strike, they chanted together that he was a bad prisoner and a troublemaker. Prisoners and guards had rapidly adapted to their roles, stepping beyond the boundaries of what had been predicted and 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 and five had to be removed from the study early.

Zimbardo himself started to give in to the roles of the situation. He had to be shown the reality of the experiment by Christina Maslach, his girlfriend and future wife, who had just received her doctorate in psychology.

At the end of the experiment, after all the prisoners had been released and the guards let go, everyone was brought back into the same room for evaluation and to be able to get their feelings out in the open towards one another. Ethical concerns surrounding the famous study often draw comparisons to the Milgram experiment, which was conducted in 1961 at Yale University by Stanley Milgram, Zimbardo's former high school friend.

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