What You Need To Know About The Stanford Prison Experiment

What You Need To Know About The Stanford Prison Experiment

A Brief Explanation Of The Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment was a social psychology experiment in which college students acted as prisoners or guards in a simulated prison. In 1971, Stanford University hosted the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), a role-play and simulation. The experimenters planned a two-week simulation of a prison setting to look at the influence of situational factors on participants’ emotions and behaviors. The experiment was led by Stanford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo and his study team.

Over two weeks, the researchers wanted to see how role-playing, labeling, and social expectations affected behavior. However, the mistreatment of prisoners became so severe that principal investigator Philip G. Zimbardo called the experiment off after only six days.

In Zimbardo’s book The Lucifer Effect, he claimed that he sinned of omission, the evil of inactivity, by failing to provide proper monitoring and surveillance when needed; since they obtained the results at the cost of human misery. He apologized for it and continued to apologize for his part in this inhumanity.

The US Office of Naval Research supported the experiment as a behavior study. They videotaped aspects of the research, and bits of footage are accessible online. 

The Stanford Experiment

The experiment began on August 15, 1971, with the first official day being August 15, 1971. The project started with genuine Palo Alto cops arresting inmates in their communities. At Christina Maslach’s request, some guards were harsh to the detainees. These situations forced Zimbardo to call off the experiment before its conclusion date. On August 20, six days later, Zimbardo cancelled the trial. Zimbardo studied the data and reported his conclusions after debriefing with his “guards” and “prisoners.”

More than 70 young males responded to an advertisement for a psychological study of prison life. However, the experimenters chose 24 men who were physically and mentally fit. The researchers split the subjects into equal groups of guards and prisoners at random. They were to pay each participant $15 per day. Again, they issued the guards with mirrored sunglasses to prevent eye contact. In addition, the researchers warned the guards about physically abusing the prisoners. Actual cops “arrested” the inmates and handed them over to the researchers in a mock prison in the basement of a campus building.

Before taking part in the research, all students had to complete a Consent Form. After that, the inmates were subject to humiliations to mimic the conditions of a real prison. The researchers forced these inmates to wear a “dress” uniform and carry a chain padlocked around one ankle. The experimenters videotaped and observed all of the participants.

The prisoners staged a revolt on only the second day. To keep the prisoners in check, the guards devised a system of rewards and punishments. They released three of the detainees after only four days because they had become so traumatized. Some guards became cruel and oppressive during the experiment, while some prisoners became depressed and disoriented. Zimbardo concluded the experiment less than a week after an outside observer arrived on the scene and registered shock.

The SPE Methodological And Ethical Approach

On methodological and ethical grounds, individuals immediately criticized the Stanford Prison Experiment. Zimbardo acknowledged that he felt more like a prison superintendent than a research psychologist during the experiment. Later, he claimed the experiment’s social forces and environmental contingencies caused the guards’ bad behavior. On the other hand, others claimed that the original advertisement drew people who were predisposed to authoritarianism. 

The BBC Prison Study, a differently organized experiment documented in a British Broadcasting Corporation series called The Experiment, provided the most prominent challenge to the Stanford findings decades later (2002). The mock prisoners created by the BBC proved to be more assertive than those created by Zimbardo. A study of what occurs when a strong authority person (Zimbardo) imposes dictatorship was the verdict from the British researchers of the Stanford experiment.

Outside of academics, the Stanford Prison Experiment gained popularity. SPE inspired the Das Experiment (2001), a German direct-to-video film and The Experiment (2010). The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015) was done with Zimbardo’s direct involvement; the dramatic film more closely resembled real occurrences.

SPE Accountability And De-individuation

The SPE, in which students were de-identified as convicts or jail guards in a simulated prison environment at Stanford University, became a landmark experiment. The students in charge of guarding the students were physically violent to them. These conditions forced the research coordinator to terminate the experiment.

De-individuation is a phenomenon in which individuals behave irrationally, defiantly, and even violently in settings where they feel they can’t be individually recognized. For instance, in groups and crowds and on the Internet.

The Nature Of The SPE 

The researchers kept the prisoners in jail 24 hours a day, seven days a week, although guards alternated in three eight-hour stints. As a result, three students were usually in charge of nine inmates. The jail warden and guards forced these inmates to observe a set of regulations. That included being quiet during rest periods, eating at mealtimes, and keeping the prison cells clean. 

Nonetheless, the university associations approved the commencement of the research. That includes:

  • The Stanford Human Subjects Review Committee.
  • The Stanford Psychology Department.
  •  The Office of Naval Research’s Group Effectiveness Branch.

In addition, they notified the Student Health Department about the research and arranged for any medical treatment that the participants may need ahead of time.

Some of the detainees did opt out of the program. For the most part, prisoners appeared to forget or misinterpret that they might escape “via established protocols,” reinforcing their feeling of confinement by informing one other that there was no way out. Due to extreme emotional or cognitive responses, they released half of the inmates early.

Nonetheless, guards only received no intense correctional officer training. But the researchers offered them with:

  • A short briefing.
  • The state’s law and order.
  • Physical aggression.
  • Prisoner escapes prevention.

Authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, and other personality traits did not vary substantially between the most and least abusive guards. The characteristics of the setting, rather than the guards’ personalities, seem to have caused abusive guard conduct.

The Experiment’s Conclusion

Zimbardo’s interpretation of the SPE proved that the participants’ conduct was caused by the simulated-prison scenario rather than individual personality factors. Using this situational attribution, the findings are consistent with those of the Milgram experiment. That is, volunteers were given instructions to deliver potentially deadly electric shocks to a shill.

The experiment has also been used to demonstrate the power of authority and cognitive dissonance theories. Knowing that they were being monitored may have influenced their actions; the Hawthorne effect. Guards may have acted more violently when supervisors seeing them did not intervene to restrict them, rather than being constrained by the dread of an observer.

Before the experiment, Zimbardo directed the guards to mistreat the detainees in different ways. For example, instead of referring to detainees by name, they had to refer by number. According to Zimbardo, the purpose was to reduce the convicts’ individuality. Because they had little control over what occurred to them, inmates learnt that they had little influence over what happened to them, leading them to cease reacting and give up.

One good outcome of the research is that it has changed the way prisons in the United States are administered. Minors accused of federal offenses are no longer held alongside adult criminals before trial. This is because of the potential for violence against them.

Shortly after they terminated the research, there were brutal revolts at the San Quentin and Attica prison complexes. Zimbardo submitted his results to the US House Committee on the Judiciary.

Ethical Approach Of The SPE

Many people thought the experiment was unethical; since most significant criticism was maintained even after participants stated their want to stop. Zimbardo did not let participants leave at any moment, although they were informed they could. Ethical rules for studies involving human participants have been created since the Stanford jail experiment. 

Following this experiment, associations enacted procedures to prevent researchers from treating volunteers detrimentally. Furthermore, Human studies must now be examined and deemed to comply with ethical criteria. Some of the organizations that establish these criteria include:

  • The American Psychological Association.
  • The British Psychological Society
  • An institutional review board.
  • An ethics committee.

According to these standards, individuals must weigh the potential advantage of research against the danger of bodily and psychological damage.

Individuals regard post-experimental debriefing as a critical ethical factor for ensuring that researchers treat the participants fairly. Though Zimbardo did hold debriefing meetings following SPE, it was many years later. Although many details had faded at that point, several participants reported no long-term detrimental impacts.

According to current guidelines, the debriefing procedure should take place as quickly as possible. This is to evaluate any potential psychological impairment and rehabilitate individuals. If a delay in debriefing is inevitable, the researcher has to take precautions to minimize injury.

Criticism And Response

The World’s Perspective Towards SPE

Over the next several decades, the contentious experiment drew a lot of attention. Individuals keep on questioning the experiment’s scientific legitimacy and its techniques. They label it as seriously flawed and a deception. Many basic social psychology textbooks include the experiment; however others do not because of questions about its methodology and ethics. The American Psychological Association in 2019 propagated the necessity for instructors and textbook writers to modify and reuse the coverage of the SPE in their classrooms and textbooks, respectively.

Stakeholders questioned the experiment’s conclusions and the experiment’s approach as unscientific. The “guards” were briefed on their jobs and what was and wasn’t appropriate behavior toward “prisoners” before the experiment date. One common criticism of SPE is that demand factors influenced participants’ conduct.

While no one could duplicate SPE morally, genuine jails may experience far more severe abuse and guard tension. Six people died in a breakout attempt and prison riot at San Quentin State Prison on August 21, 1971, after SPE ended.

Since practically the beginning, there has been debate over the Stanford jail experiment’s ethics and scientific rigor. Moreover, no one has ever successfully duplicated it. Some of the guards’ actions resulted in potentially hazardous and psychologically destructive circumstances. The experiment’s ethical difficulties have prompted similarities to Stanley Milgram’s highly contentious obedience to authority experiment, even though he performed 10 years earlier at Yale University in 1961. The guards would get so engaged in their position as a guard that they would emotionally, physically, and psychologically degrade the inmates due to the abuse they were giving them.

The experimenters’ conclusions and observations were mostly subjective and anecdotal. In addition, they were very hard for other researchers to replicate the experiment correctly. Erich Fromm claimed to identify generalizations in the experiment’s findings and stated that an individual’s personality did influence their conduct while incarcerated. This contradicted the study’s conclusion that the jail environment influences an individual’s conduct. According to Fromm, the experimenters’ procedures to screen the participants would not assess the quantity of sadism.

In 2018, individuals extensively publicized the digitized recordings from the SPE website. Notably, one in which “prison warden” David Jaffe attempts to influence the conduct of one of the “guards” by pushing him to “participate” more and be more “tough” for the experiment’s benefit.

In 2013, psychologist Peter Gray criticized the experiment for demand characteristics. He claimed that participants in psychological experiments are more likely to do what they think the researchers want them to do, in the case of the Stanford prison experiment.

Others have contended that since the ad described a need for convicts and guards rather than social psychology research; then selection bias may have played a part in the outcomes.

What Is The Difference Between The Movie And The Stanford Prison Experiment?

While the Stanford Prison Experiment film was based on the original 1971 experiment, there are significant changes between the two. The experiment does not allow the guards and detainees to commit physical aggression like in the film. Furthermore, the research differed from the movie in its conclusion. Christina Maslach, a graduate student (and Professor Zimbardo, eventual wife), also questioned the experiment. After considering her concerns, Zimbardo states that the trial would cease the following day. The film shows this encounter.

However, to add to the drama, Professor Zimbardo returns to the experiment and sees guards sexually degrade the inmates; hence, he abruptly terminates the experiment.