Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Experiment brought him critical acclaim. At the same time, it accorded him a certain level of notoriety; because of the methodologies, he utilized to conduct the said experiment.
Nevertheless, his landmark study created shockwaves within the scientific community, when the unexpected results radically altered what people previously believed in the area of human behavior.
Zimbardo’s experiments made it clear that the power of the situation, situational norms, and the corresponding roles that people play within a particular social framework dictate the behavior of the individual more than the core beliefs that made up his personal identity.
The Power of the Situation
Zimbardo and his research team had to account for the bizarre ending to his experiment. It was not only the unexpected results that radically altered the way they view the impact of circumstances and other social factors on individual behavior, but it was also the speed of the transformation process.
In just a matter of 2 to 4 days, a group of ordinary college students altered their behavior to fit new roles and expectations. The college students assigned to play the guards mimicked the behavior of jail guards as known in popular media and literature.
In other words, ordinary college students verbally abused other college students who played the role of prisoners. One can argue that the power of the situation played a key role in transforming the mindset and belief system of the research participants. In the end, they transformed into someone they did not recognize.
The key element in the power of the situation is none other than the feeling of hopelessness (Pakes & Winstone, 2007). When a person is convinced that he is stuck in a hopeless situation, his personality and his demeanor unravel. Based on the results of Zimbardo’s experiment, the prisoners started to experience distress. Finally, they manifested desperate behavior.
The Power of Institutional Norms and Roles
One can argue that the participants were influenced by their perception of institutional norms (Houghton, 2015). In this particular context, the guards and the prisoners had prior knowledge of the function of the penal system. In other words, the guards knew that the prisoners violated the law.
Therefore, they need to endure the punishment meted to them as a consequence of their behavior. With regard to the power of roles, it has to be pointed out that without a clear understanding of the significance of institutional norms, the roles they assumed in the course of the experiment would have been powerless and ineffective.
However, due to a clear understanding of the expectations based on institutional norms, the guards acted as if they were agents of the state, and in this context, they existed to punish the prisoners. On the other hand, the prisoners accepted their role as individuals who were supposed to absorb the punishment dished out by the guards.
What Can be Done?
There are two things that policymakers and institutional leaders can do to prevent the outbreak of violence within the penal system. First, they need to remove any suggestion of hopelessness. The guards, jail warden, and officials handling the penitentiary must never use tactics to create hopelessness as a form of punishment.
Once the prisoners experience hopelessness, they will do everything in their power to break free from a deplorable situation. Secondly, policymakers and institutional leaders must consider the penal system as a last resort. Furthermore, even after a criminal is incarcerated, the jailhouse is never seen as the dead end, and its primary purpose is not punitive but restorative in nature.
The power of the situation, institutional norms, and roles were manifested in Zimbardo’s experiment. At the heart of the problem is the way people perceive the penal system.
Once policymakers and stakeholders are in agreement that the purpose of the penal system is punitive in nature, then all the actors within that social stage are going to play the role based on certain expectations. As a result, guards are insensitive to the needs and vulnerabilities of the prisoners, because they erroneously believed that the primary purpose of the jailhouse is to punish the prisoners locked up within its cells.
Houghton, D. (2015). Political psychology. New York, NY: Routledge.
Pakes, F., & J. Winstone. (2007). Psychology crime. New York, NY: Routledge.