The Stanford Prison Experiment and What it Asks Us About Ourselves.

Abu Ghraib 3

Abu Ghraib (Image via Wikipedia)

In 1971 a team of Stanford research psychologists, led by Dr. Philip Zimbardo, recruited the most normal young men they could find. The group was randomly divided in two – half would be prison-guards, half prisoners. Philip Zimbardo says about this stage of the experiment,

It is important to remember that at the beginning of our experiment there were no differences between boys assigned to be a prisoner and boys assigned to be a guard. (1)

They constructed a ‘prison’ in the basement of Stanford’s Psychology Department and set up concealed cameras and an intercom so that they could record what happened.

The students assigned to the prisoner role were arrested, searched, stripped, deloused, given prison clothes and assigned an ID number which they were told they had to use when speaking about themselves or the other prisoners.  The guards were dressed in identical uniforms and wore mirror sunglasses, a whistle around their necks, carried a real police club and made up their own rules.

The second day, the prisoners rebelled and the guards began to ‘control’ them.  Within 36 hours one of the boys began to melt down.  The emotional distress of this ‘prisoner’ increased and continued to the point that the researchers reluctantly released him from the ‘prison.’

Next day, another prisoner – Prisoner #819 – asked to see a doctor.   Zimbardo took him to a room where he and the prison doctor tried to brow-beat the boy into staying.  During this session, Zimbardo left to get some food.  Meanwhile, one of the guards lined up the other prisoners and had them chant –

“Prisoner #819 is a bad prisoner. Because of what Prisoner #819 did, my cell is a mess, Mr. Correctional Officer”  – over and over.

By the time Philip Zimbardo returned to the room, prisoner #819 was sobbing uncontrollably and refused to leave as he needed to go back and prove he wasn’t ‘a bad prisoner.’  As Zimbardo recounts,

At that point I said, “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.”

He stopped crying suddenly, looked up at me like a small child awakened from a nightmare, and replied, “Okay, let’s go.” (2)

After five days, the prisoners were a group of isolated individuals trying to survive and the guards were either perpetrating or supporting evil actions. In general, the guards fell into three broad categories – tough but fair, good guys who did favours and didn’t punish and those who not only inflicted punishment but seemed to enjoy it.  The astonishing thing was that there were absolutely no indicators in the preliminary psychological profiles that would have suggested any of these extreme behaviours.

Then Christiana Maslach was brought in to do interviews.  When she saw prisoners being marched to toilet break, bags on their heads, chained together, hands on each other’s shoulders she objected.  Of Maslach’s intervention, Zimbardo says,

Once she countered the power of the situation, however, it became clear that the study should be ended. (3)

Thus the experiment which was to last two weeks was abandoned after only six days. The participants were all traumatised – five of the boys suffered emotional breakdowns and huge questions needed to be answered as to how ordinary, healthy boys could be transformed into powerless prisoners or sadistic monsters.

But Why Do Good People Do Evil Things? 

There are two broad schools of thought regarding the emergence of evil and bad behaviour in human beings.  One school of thought – the dispositional school – believes that it’s all about the individual and has little or nothing to do with the situation.  Zimbardo disagrees, he is inclined to think that situational influences are more important than dispositional when it comes to explaining how seemingly ‘good’ people turn ‘bad.’

Locating evil within selected individuals or groups carries with it the ‘social virtue’ of taking society ‘off the hook’ as blameworthy: societal structures and political decision making are exonerated from bearing any burden of the more fundamental circumstances that create racism, sexism, elitism, poverty and marginal existence for some citizens.  Furthermore, this dispositional orientation to understanding evil implies a simplistic, binary world of good people, like us, and bad people, like them. (4)

Because, even Philip Zimbardo who was part of this experiment and freely admits that he himself was pulled into it, does not think that human beings are creationally bad.  Rather he believes that we all have the potential to be either good or bad – or possibly even good and bad – and that there are many factors outside of ourselves that will have an influence on our decisions in this regard.

Zimbardo believes that what this experiment proves is the importance of our institutions and how we should see the influence they have on our actions.

In 2008, Zimbardo published a book called, The Lucifer Effect – How Good People Turn Evil.  In this more recent work, he compares the stories of Iraqi prisoner abuse by US and UK soldiers in places like Abu Ghraib, to his famous Stanford experiment.  Zimbardo doesn’t find these incidents surprising because, as he puts it,

While a few bad apples might spoil the barrel…a barrel filled with vinegar will always transform sweet cucumbers into sour pickles – regardless of the best intentions, resilience and genetic nature of those cucumbers. (5)

What Makes A Whistle Blower?

Horrific as this experiment turned out to be, it is interesting to note how the influence of Christiana Maslach’s moral outrage.  She and Philip Zimbardo subsequently married so perhaps she had more influence on him than most – but from his description of her arrival it was almost as if her outrage – her lack of acceptance of the ‘status quo’ that they had created in the ‘prison’ – was like a sudden mirror which allowed him, and perhaps some of the others, to actually see what they were doing.

Before this, the situation had become so normalised that after five days they had already lost the sense that they were the authors of this reality and begun to accept it as existing independently of them. So how – and why – do we fall into these situations where instead of being moral agents in our own right we become part of a system of wrong-doing even when we don’t take part and don’t approve of it?

And why are there some people who seem able to act as discrete units even within a system? People like Christiana Maslach and Joe Darby – the whistle-blower in Abu Ghraib – are able to maintain enough of themselves and their internal moral compass to be able to make clear judgements about right and wrong – how do they manage that?

The Stanford Prison Experiment is a famous example of how good people do bad things but it also contains an example of a whistle-blower – a person who stands up for what is right.  We all have this capacity and so important as it is to understand that we each have a capacity for evil, it is equally important for us to look at how we can develop our inherent capacity for courageous, selfless good.



(2) ibid

(3) ibid

(4) Zimbardo, P.G. (2004).  A Situationist Perspective     on the Psychology of Evil: Understanding How Good People Are Transformed into Perpetrators.  In A.G. Miller (Ed.), The Social Psychology of Good and Evil, (pp 21-50). New York, Guilford Press.

(5) ibid

2 comments on “The Stanford Prison Experiment and What it Asks Us About Ourselves.

  1. Mbconsulting says:

    Somebody told me about this experiment.

    Honestly I did not search for it, but amazing things are happened under WordPress, I find your post.

    What should we learn from this experiment?

    From my perspective always analyse the actions and don’t care to much about what is doing the crowd, think about what is good or not and act in according with the situation. Well, the power may impose things that are properly built and to change is more difficult…

    But is this possible in a period dominated by Facebook when people are encourage to adhere to crowds, crowds are encouraged to grow as number, even if they really do not share the same believes?!?!?!

    I took my lesson in December 1989 when in Romania was a movement against Ceausescu, a totalitarian communist leader. Until that moment, people that more or less accepted him and his behaviour suddenly woke up and were looking for something else. The most difficult position was for the system that was in charge with protection of that leader. One by one, person after person, they left the totalitarian leader and the leader was transformed in a prisoner. Meanwhile, outside, with explanations or without, people really died. Was not quite simple, with less damages, with less pains and less costs if all his advisers would recommend him, at that moment, to step down from that position? They did not had the courage and for this attitude people died and others passed difficult situations. In 2009 I met one lady that after 20 years did not know who killed her husband and still did not understand why only her husband was killed from a number of person that all had the same mission. She asked me:” What you did in December 1989? Why I do not know now who killed my husband?” Hard questions.Maybe these will be the questions for her enter life, and where are answers? How and who should deliver the answers?

    The lesson that I took from that moment is that I really understood that I must have, day by day, to care and to stand for proper behaviours. To change attitude means to start today with me and you, and then going with our friends, relatives and so on… Someone may say that in a way it is a wast of time with these, but what about on a long term? It may have sense…

    It is also good, from time to time, to remember about the Standford prison experiment, as you did in your post. Thanks.

    Experiments, experiments, but outside them is my life, your life, our lives…

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