In 1971 the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) was organized in order to study the psychological effects of perceived positions of power, using one of the best-known divisions of power – that which exists between prison officers and the prisoners that they are tasked to guard.
Conducted at Stanford University, it’s fame was not found through the experiments scientific conclusions, but rather through the brutality and violence that it brought about, resulting in its termination after only 6 days.
The study participants were volunteers from the college, randomly sorted into prisoners and guards. On August 17th, 1971 the nine men selected to act as prisoners were picked up by local police officers and transported to the Stanford County Prison, better known as the Stanford University psychology department. Here they would be under the direct supervision of the students selected for the role of guards.
While researchers were interested to see if the participants would conform to the roles they were assigned, they hadn’t predicted the extreme impact response that was to follow. The team looked to solve a couple important questions – What will happen if good people are put into an evil place? Will humanity win over evil, or will evil ultimately triumph? Lead investigator Philip Zimbardo explained, “How we went about testing these questions and what we found may astound you. Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.”
The basement of the Stanford University psychology was converted into a mock prison where the 24 male college students were to be kept for the duration of the experiment. There were some changes early on among the participants, and the experiment would end up being held with 10 prisoners and 11 guards. In order to make the situation as lifelike as possible, the prisoners went through the full booking process, arrested without warning, fingerprinted, photographed and ‘booked.’ Upon arriving at the makeshift prison, they went through the usual procedure for intake, stripped, deloused and locked away with nothing but prison clothes and bedding, their belongings seized for the time that they are held.
The guards, on the other hand, were given identical khaki uniforms, a whistle, and a billy club – official gear borrowed directly from the local law enforcement. They were also required to wear special sunglasses that were dark enough to make it impossible for them to make eye contact with the prisoners. They were given the order to do whatever they believed was necessary in order to maintain ‘law and order’ within the prison, however, no physical violence would be permitted throughout the experiment.
Settling quickly into their roles, those tasked to be guards began to enforce their authority while the prisoners took a passive stance, accepting the orders, punishments and even psychological abuse inflicted upon them. Zimbardo was there throughout the experiment overseeing everything that occurred. When the guards crossed the line, subjecting some of the prisoners to what was described as psychological torture he allowed the abuse to continue. It wasn’t until graduate student Christina Maslach (who was dating Zimbardo at the time and would later marry him) voiced her objections that the experiment was abandoned.
The prisoners were made to repeat their assigned numbers over and over, reinforcing the fact that their identity was nothing more than a number in the experiment. They would deny some prisoners access to proper washroom facilities, requiring them to use a bucket that was placed within their cell. If they felt that a prisoner was failing to follow their orders, they would deny them the ‘right’ to empty the sanitation bucket. As a punishment some prisoners would have their mattress removed, leaving them to sleep on the cold concrete. They also placed prisoners in ‘solitary confinement,’ locked in a dark closet. Reports from the experiment revealed that approximately 1/3 of the guards exhibited genuine sadistic tendencies.
Parts of the experiment were filmed, and in time this footage was made available to the public. The experiment came under attack for the dangerous and psychologically damaging situations that were created throughout the experiment, traumatizing the prisoners emotionally. The ethical concerns that were raised would impact decisions made in the experiments that would follow years after it was concluded.
Image via the Scientific American