“People speak sometimes about the "bestial" cruelty of man, but that is terribly unjust and offensive to beasts, no animal could ever be so cruel as a man, so artfully, so artistically cruel.”
The Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted by psychologist professor Philip Zimbardo and colleagues. Aimed to investigate the development of norms and the effects of roles, labels, and social expectations in a simulated prison environment. The experiment was supposed to last two weeks but was ended abruptly just six days later, after a string of mental breakdowns, an outbreak of sadism and a hunger strike.
The research team placed newspaper advertisements in the Palo Alto Times and The Stanford Daily offering $15/day to male college students for a study on the psychology of imprisonment: 24 students, predominantly white, middle-class, were chosen: 12 to role play prisoners and 12 to role play guards. These students had no prior record of criminal arrests, medical conditions, or psychological disorders.
The local Palo Alto police department conducted surprise arrests at the home of “prisoners”. Students were handcuffed, searched, read their rights, and driven in a squad car to the police station for booking and fingerprinting and were charged with robbery.
The guards were given only a brief orientation telling them to maintain law and order, avoid physical violence, and prevent prisoner escapes. They were provided with wooden batons in order to establish their status, clothing similar to that of an actual prison guard and mirrored sunglasses to prevent eye contact. Prisoners wore uncomfortable ill-fitting smocks and stocking caps, as well as a chain around one ankle. Guards were instructed to call prisoners by their assigned numbers, sewn on their uniforms, instead of by name.
As mentioned by Prof Zimbardo, "the first day they came there it was a little prison set up in a basement with fake cell doors and by the second day it was a real prison created in the minds of each prisoner, each guard and also of the staff". The simulation became so real, and the guards became so abusive, that the experiment had to be shut down after only 6 days rather than the two weeks planned. "Suddenly, the whole dynamic changed as they believed they were dealing with dangerous prisoners, and at that point it was no longer an experiment," said Prof Zimbardo.
Abusive guard behavior appears to have been triggered by features of the situation rather than by the personality of guards. Zimbardo argued that both prisoner and guards had internalized their roles. None of them were forced to behave in certain ways and were free to withdraw from the experiment at any time. However, none of the guards left the experiment earlier, while half of the prisoners were released early due to severe emotional or cognitive reactions.
Results of the experiment suggest that the situation, rather than individual personalities, caused the participant’s behavior.
"The study is the classic demonstration o
f the power of situations and systems to overwhelm good intentions of participants and transform ordinary, normal young men into sadistic guards or for those playing prisoners to have emotional breakdowns," said Prof Zimbardo.
Zimbardo offers psychological interpretation of how ordinary people sometimes commit unexpected acts and what are the possible ways of preventing it. He argues that moral behavior can be cultivated in early life by rewarding positive behavior.
If we consider some of these general psychological principles, we can accentuate the good and eliminate the negatives in our lives. At the end of the day, regardless of our ethnical, social or religious background, “Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is” (Albert Camus).