In 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo decided to conduct the Stanford Prison Experiment, one of the most important social experiments of our time.
The aim of the experiment was to study the psychological effect of prison life as students were given the roles of guards and prisoners. Zimbardo made sure the experiment took place under very realistic circumstances.
He created a mock prison and advertised for volunteers willing to adopt the roles of prisoners or guards during a two-week psychological study. The students cast as prisoners and guards were chosen from 70 applicants that answered Zimbardo’s advertisement. Those who had psychological problems, disabilities, previous records and a history of drug use were immediately excluded.
Only 24 met the criteria required to take part in the experiment. All of them were males who belonged to the same socio-economic middle class and each was paid $15 a day for his participation. The choice between prisoners and guards was made with a simple coin toss.
The experiment started with sudden arrests by the Palo Alto police department, with police cars driving through town, taking the volunteers. They were searched, forced to wear chains and transported to Zimbardo’s simulated jail, which consisted of a solitary confinement unit, cells, and a secure outdoor yard. Prisoners were stripped, deloused and were not given underwear. Zimbardo and his team followed everything from behind a wall.
However, the experiment got out of hand very quickly. A riot broke out on day two with the prisoners barricading themselves in the cells, all the while taunting the guards. In turn, the guards didn’t let this go unpunished. They responded violently by soaking the prisoners with carbon dioxide from a fire extinguisher. Then they stripped the prisoners naked, locked up the leader of the riot and harassed the inmates.
In order to break the solidarity among prisoners, one guard came up with the idea of setting up a privilege cell. The best-behaved prisoners were moved into it and given better food than their co-conspirators. After half a day of this treatment, the guards took some of the “good” prisoners and put them in the “bad” cells and vice versa, which thoroughly confused all the prisoners.
Afterward, there were rumors of an escape plot among prisoners, and when the guards found out, they planted an informant. Nevertheless, this rumor didn’t turn out to be true. By that time, the whole atmosphere was quite intense. The guards’ violence started to increase as prisoners were made to scrub toilets with their bare hands and do jumping jacks and pushups beyond their physical endurance.
At the same time, at least two volunteers had mental breakdowns. Most people involved began to lose their grip on what was real and what was simulated. This is why the experiment was cut short and ended on Day six, instead of lasting two weeks. The prisoners assumed pathological behavior, while the guards became sadistic.
According to prisoner 416, the student who had been in solitary confinement, he didn’t think of this as an experiment because it was a prison run by psychologists instead of by the state. He claims he began to feel the identity of a prisoner and truly became number 416.
So, what did we learn from the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment? If you try to dehumanize people, you will get an inhumane result. When the nice middle-class young men were given uniforms and authority they had no experience with and became “guards”, they were transformed into sadists. On the other hand, the prisoners who were stripped of their identity, basic needs and rights and turned to revolt, sustained several mental trauma during the experiment.
The 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment was created to investigate how social environment and the roles we adopt can influence our behavior. But, what it actually showed was how dangerous and broken the system really is, and what are humans capable of when they are in a position of power or powerlessness.