Stanford Prison Experiment Summary

The Stanford Prison Experiment Summary is a famous psychology experiment that was designed to study the psychological impact of becoming a prison guard or prisoner. The experiment was conducted by Professor of Psychology, Philip Zimbardo, at Stanford University in 1971. Although it was originally intended to last for two weeks, in the event it was called off abruptly after just six days. Today, the Stanford Prison Experiment summary remains a controversial piece of psychological research, but despite criticism of the experiment, several modern military prison scandals have since illustrated the possible validity of some of the findings of Professor Zimbardo’s experiment.

Stanford Prison Experiment Summary

The aim of Zimbardo’s experiment was to see how the participants would react when placed in an institutionalized prison environment. Of the seventy-five people who applied, twenty-four males considered to be 100% fit and healthy (emotionally, physically, and psychologically) were selected to participate. Each of the participants was told that they would be going into a simulated prison environment for two weeks and that the roles of prisoner and guard would be assigned arbitrarily. Professor Zimbardo was to act as the Prison Warden and oversee the experiment.

“Prisoners” were to be confined to the makeshift prison for the duration of the experiment, but guards were allowed to work eight-hour shift patters in teams of three. When not “working”, the guards were allowed to leave the site and resume their normal life. Wooden batons were given to the guards, although they were not supposed to be used to punish the prisoners. Prisoners were given ill-fitting garments, chains around their ankles, and assigned a number as part of a disorientation and depersonalization process.

Prior to the experiment, the guards were told they were not allowed to physically punish the prisoners, but they could reinforce the sense of powerlessness prisoners would expect to feel in a real prison environment.

What happened during the Stanford Prison Experiment?

The first day of the experiment was uneventful, but by day two the situation inside the makeshift prison had begun to heat up. A riot broke out and some of the prisoners barricaded themselves inside their cell. The guards used fire extinguishers to break the riot and attempted to implement various psychological tactics as a way of regaining control. By the end of thirty-six hours, one of the prisoners was already experiencing a mental breakdown and was eventually released.

The treatment dished out to the prisoners became increasingly inhumane and interactions between the participants of the experiment were hostile and dehumanizing. More prisoners began to show signs of psychological stress and five more prisoners were released early. Some of the guards began to exhibit genuine sadistic tendencies and even Zimbardo, acting in his role as Prison Warden, lost sight of reality as the experiment unfolded. On the sixth day the experiment was aborted after graduate student, Christina Maslach, voiced concerns as to the morality of the experiment.

What conclusions were drawn from the Stanford Prison Experiment?

Zimbardo claimed that the experiment demonstrated the crucial role a situation can have on human behavior. Irrespective of an individual’s personality, when placed in certain situations people behave in ways they would not normally act in.

It was later said that the Stanford Prison Experiment, in its exploration of the tyrannical effects of leadership, was frightening in its implications of what lurks in the dark side of human nature.

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