The Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment has been studied, written about, and cited in countless books and movies, but it remains a source of controversy. Recent interviews with participants and reconsideration of archival records have led to new research and criticism.

Setting Up the Experiment

In 1971, Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo reconstructed a prison environment in the basement of Jordan Hall on the university's campus. It was a set up that mimicked the conditions of real jails and, more importantly, gave the guards and prisoners free reign to act in ways that were not dictated by societal norms or ethics.

The Guards and Their Authoritarian Scenario

During the first days of the experiment, the guards were briefed by Zimbardo on how to play out an authoritarian scenario. They were encouraged to assert their arbitrary power and to carry out a series of tasks, including waking prisoners up with whistles, imposing an elongated count procedure, and threatening them with punishment for any non-compliance.

Rebellion and Abuse

As the first night went on, a number of the prisoners started to rebel against the guards' policies. One of them, #8612, began to cry uncontrollably and scream and curse. Eventually, the guards started to use a fire extinguisher to stop him from attempting to escape his cell.On the sixth day of the experiment, Christina Maslach, a graduate student at Stanford who was conducting an interview with the guards, confronted Zimbardo about his treatment of the prisoners. She argued that by playing the role of prison superintendent, Zimbardo was abusing his own role as a scientist and had become indifferent to the plight of the students.

Entitlement and Control

According to Maslach, the guards abused the prisoners in an unseemly manner and did not take responsibility for their actions. In fact, they even lied about the circumstances surrounding their abuse of the prisoners and the severity of their actions.The guards began to believe that they were entitled to abuse the prisoners and that they could use their positions of authority to make their lives miserable. This, in turn, reinforced their arbitrary power and made them feel in control of the prisoners' lives.

Anger, Fear, and Distance

At the same time, the prisoners started to act out of anger and fear, in part because they were afraid that they would be punished for their rebellion. They also started to distance themselves from one another. Rioters began to think that other prisoners were snitches and vice versa.After this initial rebellion, the guards became much more aggressive and increasingly focused on their control and surveillance of the prisoner population. They resorted to tactics such as pulling the prisoners out of their cells to search them, and they swore at them when they were not compliant with their demands.

Termination of the Experiment

The experiment, which was meant to last two weeks, was terminated after just six days, largely because of the emotional breakdowns and excessive aggression that were occurring among the prisoners. The result was a disturbing picture of the harsh realities of life in prison and the morally reprehensible behavior that is associated with it.

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