When Good People Turn Evil - The Stanford Prison Experiment

Sunday, July 06, 2008 2 comments

In 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo, PhD, of Stanford University; along with Craig Haney, W. Curtis Banks, and David Jaffe, a team of researchers; conducted the “Stanford Prison Experiment” with the intended mission of testing the concept, that the intrinsic personality traits of prisoners and guards were the key element to understanding prison situations that are abusive.

“Male college students needed for psychological study of prison life. $15 per day for 1-2 weeks beginning Aug. 14. For further information contact…”

After being given diagnostic interviews and personality tests, out of the more than 70 responses to an ad placed in the local paper looking for male college students, they chose 24 mostly white middle class males from the US and Canada, they believed to be the most psychologically and physically healthy. Determined by a mere flip of a coin, they appointed half of the parties as guards and the others as prisoners. Zimbardo was to play the part of the superintendent and David Jaffe, an undergraduate research assistance, was appointed as the warden.

They set up the mock prison in the basement of the Stanford's Psychology Department building, where they replaced some of the laboratory doors with specially made doors made out of steel bars, and installed an intercom system to make announcements to the prisoners, and to bug their cells so they could hear what the prisoners were saying, and they placed a video camera in a small opening to record the events. Each end of the corridor was boarded up, and this became, “the yard”. Other then when they were blind folder to go to the bathroom so they couldn’t find their way out of the prison, the “yard” was the only place that the prisoners were allowed, to be outside, eat, and exercise. Opposite the cells, was a small closet which was approximately 2’ x 2’ and very dark was deemed “the hole”, and was to be used for solitary confinement.

With the assistance of the local Palo Alto Police Department, the participants that were to play the part of the prisoners were arrested and handcuffed unexpectedly at their homes on a Sunday morning, in plain view of their unsuspecting neighbors, and charged with armed robbery and burglary. They were given their rights, and then subjected to the full booking procedures at the police station, including fingerprinting and taking mug shots, blindfolded and put into a holding cell, and then later transported to the mock prison where they were further subjected to a strip-search, deloused to make them feel as if it was believed that they had lice and germs, given their new identities, and met the Warden.

The guards were given wooden batons, mirrored sunglasses to inhibit eye contact, khaki shirts and pants and a whistle. The prisoners were given badly fitting dress type smocks with their numbers sown on them, no underwear, and had to wear women’s stockings on their heads to simulate having their heads shaved, and chains around their ankles. In a real prison, prisoners are humiliated and male prisoners are made to feel emancipated, so this attire was to help simulate this effect, and the chain around the ankle was placed there to remind the prisoners at all times, of the oppressiveness of their new environment, and they could only be referred to by both the guards and the other prisoners by their ID number with the intended purpose of taking away their individuality.

On the day before the experiment the researchers held a meeting with the guards where they were instructed that they could not physically harm the prisoners, however, Zimbardo has been quoted as saying, “You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can create a notion of arbitrariness that their life is totally controlled by us, by the system, you, me, and they’ll have no privacy.” He stated, “We’re going to take way their individuality in various ways. In general what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness. That is, in this situation we’ll have all the power and they’ll have none.” Zimbardo had the intention of setting up specific conditions on the prisoners which he hoped would promote disorientation, depersonalize, and take away there sense of individualization.

The prisoners were subjected to several “counts” throughout the day and night, much like real prison, beginning at 2:30 AM, which was signaled by the blasting of whistles. The purpose of the “counts” was, in part, for the purpose of giving the guards an added opportunity to exert their control over the prisoners. These “counts” served as the first of a series of confrontations between the guards and inmates when the prisoners, still exhibiting their independence, did not take them too seriously.

Things soon began to get out of hand following the uneventful first day. Still exhibiting their independence; the prisons staged a riot on the second day, by placing their mattresses against the doors, ripping off their numbers, removing their stockings, and began to taunt the guards. This angered the guards greatly, and they volunteered to work extra hours to help the morning shift, along with the help of three other guards, that had been previously on stand-by, to solve the issue. After a meeting of the minds, the guards used fire-extinguishers to get the prisoners away from the doors, stripped them naked, removed their highly valued mattresses, and placed the prisoners that served as the head of the riot into “the hole”.

Since the budget did not allow for that number of guards to stay on duty, the guards decided to use psychological means to gain control over the prisoners, and set up a “privilege cell”, and the three prisoners that were determined to have the least involvement with the riot where given the special privileges of having their mattresses back and being allowed to wash and brush their teeth, were given back their smocks, and given special food, in plain view of the other prisoners who were forced to sleep on the concrete floor, and temporarily lost their eating privilege. After half a day of this, the guards confused them by switching the three prisoners with some three of the others.

This treatment served to break the solidarity among the prisoners. The prisoners soon became distrustful of each other, suspecting the new privileged prisons of informing. They had divided and conquered the prisoners while the guards became more united in their efforts. The guards became paranoid and believed the prisoners were troublemakers who were now out to get them, and might quite possibly cause them harm, so the guards began increasing their control, surveillance and aggression towards the prisoners.

Sanitary conditions declined rapidly when, as a method of degradation, the guards did not allow the others to use the bathroom, and often after the 10:00 PM lockup, the prisoners were forced to go to the bathroom in a bucket, that they left in the cell, and at times were not allowed to empty them. Another method of degradation was to subject some of the prisoners to sexual humiliation which included simulated homosexual sex. Push-ups which were a common means of punishment in the Nazi prison camps were a common use of punishment by the guards, and one of the guards stepped on their backs, or made other prisoners step on their backs while doing the sit-ups, for such offences.

Approximately one-third of the guards became increasingly cruel as the experiment went on, and the experimenters stated that they exhibited genuine sadistic tendencies. The treatment inflicted by the guards started leading to dangerously psychological situations, and many prisoners were emotionally traumatized, leading to two of the prisoners having to be prematurely released.

When prisoner #416, a replacement, expressed concern about the treatment of the prisoners, and they put him in “the hole” after he stated that he was on a hunger strike. When the guards then told the other prisoners that they would release him only if they were willing to give up their blankets and sleep on the floor, most of the prisoners opted to keep their blankets because they believed this prisoner was a troublemaker, further emphasizing the fact that the unity between the prisoners had been severed, and were reduced to a bunch of individuals that happened to occupy the same space and circumstances.

Prisoner #8612 began suffering acute emotional disturbance, exhibited by uncontrollable crying, rage and unorganized thinking. The guards believed he was faking, and used this behavior as a means of trying to be released early. As a result the prisoner was interviewed by the primary consultant who humiliated him and informed him about how he would have been abused by both the guards and prisoners if he had been placed in San Quinton, and offered to discontinue the harassment if he would become an informant. The other prisoner’s fear and reality of being imprisoned escalated after this prisoner told the others that they could not quit and leave. It took quite some time for them to realize the severity of the situation, even after he again began to go into an uncontrollable crying rage, and eventually released him.

When they feared that family members would take the prisoners home when they saw the appalling condition of the prison on visiting day, they decided to make the prison seem pleasant to them. They cleaned the prison, washed and shaved the prisoners, and went so far as to play music over the intercoms and have the visitors greeted at the registration desk by Susan Phillips, a Stanford cheerleader.

However, their good cheer was also taken under control when they had to register, and were instructed that the rules consisted of: having only two visitors per prisoner for a ten minute period, and that they had to be monitored by a guard during their visit. Even though they complained about these rules, they also complied. However, they were also subjected to psychological manipulation when some of the parents appealed to the superintendent when they saw how distressed their son was, where the blame was shifted onto the prisoners by Zimbardo, and asked what was wrong with their son, and addressed the father’s concerns by asking him if he felt his son couldn’t handle the situation.

Things continued to escalate as the drama continued. The next major obstacle took place when the guards overheard some prisoners discussing an escape after visitation. It had been rumored that prisoner #8612, which had been released, was going to assemble some of his friends and break into the prison and release the prisons. The guards reacted by turning to the Warden, the Superintendent, and Craig Haney, acting as one of the chief lieutenants to devise their counter plan. After an attempt to enlist the help of the Palo Alto Police Department once more, with the plan of having the prisoner transferred there, was turned down due to insurance reasons, Zimbardo became quite agitated.

Plan B was put into action. The new plan consisted of bringing in more guards to chain the prisoners together with bags over their head, transporting them to the fifth floor storage room, dismantling the make shift prison until after the break in was over, and Zimbardo planned to be sitting there alone when the perpetrators entered, and planned to tell them that the experience was over and there was no one left to rescue, followed by re-arresting prisoner #8612. They would then bring the other prisoners back and double security. There was no attempted rescue. The only dilemma Zimbardo was faced with was when Gordon Bower, a former Yale graduate student and roommate, showed up out of curiosity after hearing about the experiment, caused him to realize his own psychological transformation when he asked, "Say, what's the independent variable in this study?", after Zimbardo explained what he had been doing. He later came to become conscious of how far into his role he had sunk when he realized how angry he became with his colleague for not seeing the severity of the prison break he was facing, and the lack of cooperation of the Police Department.

In the mean time, the non-existent prison break attempt only angered him and the guards further, and there abuse of the prisoners escalated even further. The prisoners were subject to additional humiliation, including cleaning out the toilets with their bare hands and increasing the length of the “counts, which also consists of “lockdowns”, and a common form of punishment in a real prison.

They didn’t stop there. They continued the psychological manipulation and control when they brought in a real Prison Chaplain, who set about the task of interviewing each of the prisoners. This Catholic Priest was also well adapted to his roles of both Priest and Prison Chaplain, and had learned to talk a certain way to the prisoners, as well as holding his hands in a certain way. He went so far as to offer to call their parents and assist them in getting legal help.

Just the same as the other two prisoners that had been released earlier in the experiment, Prisoner #819 began crying desperately when he met with the Chaplain, after earlier complaining of feeling sick. They put him in a special room and then one of the guards proceeded to line up the other prisoners, and instructed them to chant, “Prisoner #819 is a bad prisoner. Because of what Prisoner #819 did, my cell is a mess, Mr. Correctional Officer” and “Prisoner 819 did a bad thing.” This caused the prisoner to cry uncontrollably, and when Zimbardo suggested that they leave, the prisoner stated that he could not leave because the other prisoners viewed him as a “bad prisoner”, and despite the fact that he was feeling sick, he wanted to go back and prove himself to the other prisoners. It was only after appearing shocked when Zimbardo stated, "Listen, you are not #819. You are [his name], and my name is Dr. Zimbardo. I am a psychologist, not a prison superintendent, and this is not a real prison. This is just an experiment, and those are students, not prisoners, just like you. Let's go”, that the prisoner complied.

Still the experiment continued, and the next stop consisted of fooling the some of the prisoners into believing that they had grounds for parole, and put them in front of a mock Parole Board, which was comprised of departmental secretaries and graduate students. During these meetings, much to the surprise of the researchers, of the prisoners stated that they would be willing to give up the pay that they were to receive if they were released, and returned to their cells afterwards, despite the fact that they could have just left.

The Chaplain had contacted some of the parents, advising them to contact a lawyer to have their children released, and on the fifth night they requested that Zimbardo contact a lawyer for them, which he complied with.

Zimbardo terminated the experiment six days after it began, on August 20 after coming to realize that the experiment was unethical, only after he himself became completely enthralled in his role as Superintendent.

According to Zimbardo, the experiment was ended because;

  1. Some of the guards were sneaking around in the night, when they believed that they would be undetected, and further degrading the prisoners with pornographic acts.

  1. After Christina Maslach, a recent Stanford PhD, and whom Zimbardo was dating and later married, conducted interviews of both the prisoners and guards and witnessed the prisoners being marched to the bathroom with bags over their heads, and chained together, became outraged.

Two months later prisoner #416 was quoted as saying, "I began to feel that I was losing my identity, that the person that I called "Clay," the person who put me in this place, the person who volunteered to go into this prison -- because it was a prison to me; it still is a prison to me. I don't regard it as an experiment or a simulation because it was a prison run by psychologists instead of run by the state. I began to feel that that identity, the person that I was that had decided to go to prison was distant from me -- was remote until finally I wasn't that, I was 416. I was really my number."

The experiment had later been used to illustrate the cognitive dissonance theory and the power of authority, and in psychology, the experiment is used to support the theory that the situation and not their individual personalities, is what determined the behavior exhibited by the participants, including Zimbardo himself, and that they internalized their roles.

Most of this article, pictures and videos were taken from the play by play account of the experiment, as shown here.

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2 comments: to “ When Good People Turn Evil - The Stanford Prison Experiment so far...

  • Liara Covert 7/21/08, 5:25 PM

    So long as human beings create theories, they will find ways to substantiate their own perceptions. As people evolve to realize 'right' and 'wrong' views don't exist, research doesn't lose meaning, but their perception of realities changes with their sense of the soul.

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