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Impact of the Stanford Prison Experiment Have on Psychology


It can be argued that since the start of human history and despite advances in technology and society in general, human behaviour remains the same. There are issues regarding human behaviour that can surface very easily when human beings are placed in extreme conditions such as prisons. This was made evident in the Stanford Prison Experiment (“SPE”) conducted by Philip Zimbardo in 1971. This essay will begin with a brief description of Zimbardo’s SPE then it will move to explore two main issues that arose from the said experiment. The two issues revolve around the idea of control and behaviour changes in the lives of the guards and the prisoners. By discussing these issues the proponent of this paper will then be able to show their relevance when it comes to the current understanding of Psychology as a scientific discipline. Moreover, the discussion will also focus on how issues of control and behaviour change is still applicable to contemporary times and that it can re-occur as seen in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq.

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Stanford Prison Experiment

In the words of the head psychologist who designed SPE, it was a “…simulation study of the psychology of imprisonment conducted at Stanford University in 1971 (Zimbardo, 2009). The goal was to find out what will happen to good people if they are placed in an evil environment? Zimbardo and his team of researchers wanted to find out if humanity or the “goodness” of people will be able to overcome the vileness and the wickedness existing in their mock prison. The results of their experiment forced them to reconsider all their ideas and their opinions regarding the power of control, human behaviour and human nature.

The details of the plan entail a two-week investigation into the phenomenon of guards and prisoners interacting within a prison facility. They began sending out advertisements inviting volunteers to participate in their study. The incentive was to get paid a tidy sum of money to play the role of a prisoner or a prison guard for two weeks. There were many who signed up but the researchers had to filter the eager volunteers so that they can only have healthy, emotionally stable and middle-class young men that will be allowed to participate. These qualities are important because at that time it was believed that white and middle-class young male are highly-privileged and therefore they were not forced to act in a criminal or an inhumane way. In other words Zimbardo and his team were confident that they have “good apples” as opposed to the proverbial “bad apples” of society.

When it was time to divide them into groups of prisoners and guards they made sure that there is no difference between the boys that played the role of prisoners and those who played the role of prison guards. When everything was set the volunteers were waiting at their homes making ready for the experiment to start but they did not know that Zimbardo requested real policemen to arrest them. They were taken in plain view of neighbours and passers by and so the humiliation and dehumanization of the prisoners began. They were “booked” inside the precinct and then humiliated further by stripping them of their clothes, delousing them with chemicals etc. In short they experienced everything that a normal prisoner should experience. In lieu of shaving their heads they were forced to wear “stocking” over their head.

Since they had only two weeks the designers of the experiment decided to intensify the stressors in the environment so that the prisoners will immediately feel that they are not on vacation but they are in an actual prison. In this regard the prisoners were given prison clothes but no underclothes. A heavy chain was tied around the right ankle and this was secured in place by a padlock. So even when they are sleeping they can be awakened by the painful ankle bracelet and be reminded rudely that they are in prison. This realization was made more intense when guards on duty would wake them up at 2:30 AM. The prisoners have no names, there were only given numbers and so with this kind of treatment it was easy for them to feel isolated and powerless against the system.

Their timidity was also enhanced by the presence of guards who wore khaki and perpetually wore sunglasses to maintain anonymity. The sunglasses also prevented them from knowing what the guards actually felt and so they became more menacing to the prisoners. The first day passed without incident but then all of a sudden the prisoners began to rebel against the prison system (Zimbardo, 2009). The researchers were unprepared at the reaction of the prisoners but they were more startled by the reaction of the prison guards. While the prisoners barricaded themselves inside the prison cell, the guards were quick to organise themselves in order to put out the rebellion. One has to take note that the guards were not professional jail guards but they quickly found a way to breakdown the will of the prisoners.

The guards requested reinforcements and therefore increasing their number and their strength. Then they used fire extinguishers to break into the prison cell. And again, without formal training the guards came in to strip the prisoners naked and forced the ringleader into a solitary confinement (Zimbardo, 2009). This started a chain reaction of events that made the prisoners more brutal and inhumane to the prisoners. Interestingly even the head of research that played the role of jail supervisor began to completely immerse in his role and became so convinced that they needed to suppress the rebellion and to prevent the prisoners from escaping.

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The prison guards began to use various psychological tactics to further breakdown the unity experienced by the prisoners. Some prisoners they allowed to wash and brush their teeth while for others they did not even allow them to go to the toilet. The prisoners began to feel that they are locked-in forever and that there is no way out. In less than 36 hours prisoner #8612 began suffering from acute emotional problems (Zimbardo, 2009). But the leader of the research team was so engrossed in his role that he thought that prisoner was merely acting out so he can be released. In retaliation to the rumoured prison break attempt the guards increased their harassment of the prisoners and they were forced to clean out the toilet bowls with their bare hands (Zimbardo, 2009). They also forced them to do push-ups and rudely awakened them while they were sleeping.

Even outsiders who were brought in to do role-play began to be affected by the environment. The consultant thoroughly believed that he was a responsible for giving parole and he became so difficult to work with. Interestingly, this consultant was a former prisoner, one should expect him to be a little more lenient but he was not. Prisoner, #819 refused to eat and became sick but when asked to talk to a priest he began to cry (Zimbardo, 2009). While he was crying the prisoners were lined up by the prison guards and asked to chant that prisoner #819 was a bad prisoner (Zimbardo, 2009). This prompted the prisoner to beg the leader of the experiment to allow him to go back to prison.

Control and Human Behaviour

On the final stages an observer saw prison guards placing paper bags to cover the head of the prisoners while being escorted to the bathroom. This prompted her to complain to Dr. Zimbardo that the experiment was inhumane. This prompted them to stop but not after completely transforming the behaviour of everyone involved (O’Toole, 1997). In a BBC reality TV show that tried to restage the SPE they did not get the same results and this may be due to the fact that the SPE has become popular over the years. Still, the BBC experiment proved that those who are role playing as prisoners began to behave in an interesting way by forming a commune and wanting to break out from the prison facility (BBC News, 2002).

This has proven that human behaviour is not only about social status and educational background. The members of the original SPE experiment were all educated and all have access to resources and thus did not experience being a criminal a deviant. They were the “good apples” as compared to those who can be easily typecast into someone who may have a propensity to break the law. It was therefore surprising to find out that these “good apples” quickly became tyrants in a time-frame of less than 36 hours.

This means that the environment played a major role in influencing human behaviour. This will have significant impact on psychology as a scientific discipline because it has proven the idea that psychology can manipulate reaction of human beings even if they were already pre-programmed to act kindly and to act decently towards their fellowmen. The SPE was able to show that if there is the right amount of stressors and the perfect scenario that will create incentives for acting inhumane, then the people inside that framework will act like animals.

This was made evident in the Abu Ghraib prison. This is further proof that the SPE experiment was valid. There was nothing in it that was manipulated to produce certain results. According to one report the prisoners at Abu Ghraib experienced humiliation and torture in the hands of soldiers who appeared to be good people (Worthington, 2009). There was something in the environment that prompted them to behave in a despicable manner. This is not only significant for psychology as a field of scientific discipline it is also important for policy makers as well as jail officials to review their procedures.


Prison cells must be seen as places where human behaviour can be changed for the better. It is difficult to accept that prison facilities are doing more harm than good. If this is the case then policymakers must really take a long hard look at the strategies and the methodology adopted by their office in order to achieve their goal of rehabilitation and reform. If it is not working then it is not worth it to invest a ton of money for something that is seriously broken.

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BBC News. (2002) “Shocking experiment recreated for TV.” 

O’Toole, K. (1997) “The Stanford Prison Experiment: Still powerful after all these years.”

Worthington, A. (2009) Images that exposed the truth on abuse

Zimbardo, P. (2009) “The Stanford Prison Experiment after all these years.” 

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