The Stanford Prison Disaster

It’s hard to believe that good people can do bad things. But it does happen.

We all know about the horrors of Nazi Germany. How millions of people were rounded up and slaughtered en masse, merely for being foreign, or gay, or disabled, or not white.

It’s horrific, to put it lightly. But in the aftermath of World War II, after the fall of Adolf Hitler’s regime, many of those who participated in the brutal activities feigned ignorance. Some even declared that they were just following orders.

Were they good people, who were just led astray? Or were they brutal sadists, who revelled in the suffering of others?

Well, no one can know for certain, it’s impossible. But it does raise some interesting questions regarding the minds of all humanity. Can we be that easily manipulated. Can a good person be convinced to do some extremely horrible things?

Perhaps, if they’re not alone. Because the collection of those millions were not done by any single individual, but by virtual armies, working together.

Could it be that if you’re surrounded by dozens of people doing the exact same thing you are, you feel less inclined to object?

In a way, this is exactly what psychology professor Philip Zimbardo attempted to examine when he conducted the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, back in 1971.

I say ‘infamous’ for several reasons, which I will get to. But first, I think it’s important to explain what the experiment actually was.

A total of 75 students at Stanford University volunteered for the study. Out of them, 24 were selected after being screened for mental stability. I also assume it was also an attempt to ensure a random sample, since I find it hard to believe that two-thirds of the volunteers were nuts. It just seems statistically infeasible.

The actual experiment involved splitting the subjects into two groups. Half of them were assigned the role of guard, and the other half were prisoners. Members of the ‘prisoner’ group were taken from their homes by the police, booked, strip-searched, and sent to ‘prison.’ In actuality, it was a basement at Stanford. This initiation was likely intended to make the experience as realistic as possible. However, this is where the problems begin.

To start, none of the ‘prisoners,’ were informed that the police would arrest them. So it came as a bit of a shock. Even if you ignore the strip-searching!

You see, there’s a little thing called ‘informed consent,’ which is exactly what it says on the tin. The participants could only consent to the study, if they were properly informed. This was not done.

Then again, one could argue that the deception was necessary for the study to properly proceed. Still, I don’t see how simply saying, ‘you might be dragged from your home by the police, and strip-searched,’ would ruin the experiment’s integrity too much.

The only thing it might do is reduce the number of volunteers, and I’d argue that it would’ve been a good thing.

Then there was the dress code. As I said, the prisoners were stripped naked. They were then given nothing to wear but a white smock with a number emblazoned on it.

They also wore a stocking on their head, and a chain around their ankle.

I should point out that none of this is done in any real prison. It most prisons, the prisoners get pants. They also don’t walk around with chains around their ankles.

So it begs the question: Just how realistic is this simulation? It seems about as realistic as Guitar Hero, which isn’t very realistic. And I think it’s a major problem, because it seems these decisions were made in an attempt to humiliate the ‘prisoners’ before the study even began. Which might have contaminated the final results by causing unnecessary cruelty.

But what about the guards? Well, they dressed more realistically; in army surplus clothing, complete with pants; and they wore mirrored aviator sunglasses, so no one could see their eyes, which actually is done in some prisons. So, they got that right, at least.

Now, after all the subjects were confined to basement, things only got worse. It was only the second day when the ‘prison’ had its first riot.

Yeah, things escalated quite quickly. So the guards used fire extinguishers to suppress the revolt.

Now remember: these people were only role-playing. They all knew they weren’t real prisoners or guards. However, they took on their roles with such gusto, it’s hard to believe. Even I don’t believe it, and I’m telling you this story!

I think everyone forgot that it was an experiment.

You see, the guards began using tactics of psychological warfare against the prisoners. They gave some prisoners a ‘privileged’ status with better meals, and the right to brush one’s teeth. Then they started to shuffle these roles around, in an attempt to confuse the prisoners and turn them against each other.

Punishments, on the other hand, included forcing the prisoners to defecate in a bucket in their cell, and not letting them empty it. Confiscating their mattresses, leaving them to sleep on concrete. And finally, confiscating their clothing, which meant they had to stand around naked.

Things only got worse from there… I know, hard to believe.

It took a mere 36 hours for one prisoner to have a mental break, and because of this, he had to be released.

When a new prisoner came to replace him, he expressed concern regarding the conditions of the prison. So the guards placed him in ‘solitary confinement’… it was a broom closet.

The experiment was intended to last a fortnight, but was cancelled after a mere six days.

The biggest problem at this stage was that it wasn’t cancelled sooner. Part of the reason for this could be the involvement of Zimbardo himself. You see, he wasn’t just a passive observer in the study. He decided to get involved as ‘superintendent’ of the ‘prison.’ Which means there’s a good chance the man himself was affected by the study, which could have compromised his judgement.

And likely did, since rumours did circulate that the prisoner who was released was going to return to stage a break-out. Now, instead of sitting back and observing this development, like he should have, Zimbardo decided to try to foil it. Obviously, he forgot that it wasn’t a real prison.

It’s also worth noting that the only reason the experiment was aborted was because Zimbardo’s girlfriend objected. She was also a psychologist, so that probably also had something to do with it.

But did anything good come out of this rigmarole? Well, we learned how easy it is to fall into a role. According to some of the researchers, at least a third of the guards appeared to exhibit genuinely sadistic behaviour. Which is surprising, considering they showed absolutely no sign of that before entering the prison.

It is a strange conclusion to reach, at least at first glance. It’s hard to believe one’s personality, and general morality, can completely flip in a matter of days, maybe even less.

But it happened.

However, as any scientist will tell you, a study’s results are only as good as how well they’re replicated. But who, in their right mind, would want to replicate the Stanford Prison Experiment!?

Well, the BBC, apparently.

Yes, in 2002, two psychologists, Steve Reicher from Scotland, and Alex Haslam from Australia, conducted a similar study which was subsequently broadcast on the BBC in a little program ominously titled: The Experiment.

The study lasted eight days, and presented very different results. For instance, the guards did not fall into their roles quite so naturally; and, possibly as a consequence, over time the prisoners resisted more and more.

The only reason it was halted was because there was a point at which a group of prisoners turned the tables on the guards and proposed policies that would have been worse than Stanford.

The whole experiment was closely monitored by a team of clinical psychologists, as well as an ethics committee led by British MP, Lembit Öpik. That would’ve been nice to have during the original experiment, don’t you think?

That’s another thing. The lack of proper observation might have also contributed to this metaphorical disaster at Stanford.

But how did they get such disparate results? Well, I’m not sure, but I have a theory.

Even though the participants of the original study were psychologically screened to weed out any potential bad apples; it’s possible the screening process was graded on a curve; and it’s quite likely the recruitment methods used attracted the kind of people who would turn sadistic if given the chance.

This was proven in a study back in 2007, when two researchers from Western Kentucky University sent out recruitment ads similar to the one used in the original study. Some containing the words ‘prison life,’ and others not.

They discovered that the personalities of those who volunteered for the ‘prison life’ study were more authoritarian, aggressive, and narcissistic; and less empathetic and altruistic than the control group.

It really shines a light on the original study, doesn’t it?

Some may think it unusual to consider methodology an ethical issue. But it was likely because of the sloppy methodology that things went so bad, so quickly. Because even though one may think it’s only the guards that would behave in such a way, even the prisoners acted selfishly, and aggressively, as shown during the day two riot.

Some may wonder how an ethics board would have even approved the study to begin with. Well, college ethics boards are a relatively new phenomenon, so the fact that Stanford University didn’t have an ethics board might explain it.

But two years after the study, the American Psychological Association conducted its own evaluation, and found that the ethics standards of the time were met.

Obviously, since then, the ethical standards have gotten stricter.

So, what can we learn from this? Well, don’t throw a bunch of students in a confined space, to start. Also, give them toilets.

But most importantly, it’s crucial that one is aware of the various ways things can go wrong, from every possible angle. It’s also important to do whatever it takes to prevent it.

Maintaining proper distance between the observer and the observed is of paramount importance. Zimbardo fell into his role when he shouldn’t have. He was running the study, he shouldn’t have had a role.

It’s also important not to overreach. There was no reason for the chains and nudity, that was just uncalled for.

And finally, know when to quit. Know when things go too far. That was probably the biggest mistake Zimbardo made. Not knowing when to stop.

So in conclusion, the Stanford Prison Experiment was horrible. But it did show that even the most well-meaning individual can become a complete sadist if given the opportunity. Which was aptly demonstrated during the Abu Ghraib fiasco in 2004.

And most importantly, it taught us what to look for. It taught us all how to not be horrible.

So that’s the biggest benefit offered by the Stanford Prison Experiment; the opportunity to learn from its mistakes.

Good night!


One response to “The Stanford Prison Disaster

  1. You are entitled to characterize the late Dr. Zimbardo’s work as a “disaster”, though most do not agree with your view. I would like to offer some details you didn’t provide.

    Informed consent isn’t as black & white as you’ve explained it. It is stated in the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct set by the American Psychological Association, that psychologists may not conduct research that includes a deceptive compartment UNLESS the act is justified by the value and the importance of the results of such study, provided that this could not be obtained in an alternative way. This necessary deception was a key part of both the Stanford, and previous Milgram authority experiments.

    The Stanford experiment was funded by the US Office of Naval Research, and was of interest to both the US Navy and Marine Corps as an investigation into the causes of conflict between military guards and prisoners.

    Despite being cut short, the experiment is considered a success by a consensus of scientists even though it remains controversial and has its critics. The results of the experiment have been used to demonstrate the impressionability and obedience of people when provided with a legitimizing ideology and social and institutional support. The experiment has also been used to illustrate cognitive dissonance theory and the power of authority.

    The results of the experiment favor situational attribution of behavior rather than dispositional attribution. In other words, it seemed that the situation, rather than their individual personalities, caused the participants’ behavior. Under this interpretation, the results are compatible with the results of the 1961 Milgram experiment, in which ordinary people fulfilled orders to administer what appeared to be agonizing and dangerous electric shocks to a confederate of the experimenter.

    To clarify your conclusion, the Stanford results indicate that, given a legitimizing ideology and a hierarchy of authority, all but the most extraordinary individuals are MUCH MORE likely to display dominant, less empathetic behavior. In the Stanford instance, Christina Maslach was that extraordinary individual. Of more than 50 observers during the experiment, she was the only one to object! Everyone else played their assigned roles, including Zimbardo himself, unaware of how powerful an effect the structure of a situation has on an individual’s rationalization that what he is doing is “right”.

    Shortly after the study had been completed, there were bloody revolts at both the San Quentin and Attica prison facilities, and Zimbardo reported his findings on the experiment to the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary.

    Not only is what happened at Abu Ghraib similar in dynamic, but Zimbardo was involved in the defense case, as an expert witness. He was dismayed by official military and government representatives’ shifting the blame for the torture and abuses in the prison on to “a few bad apples” rather than acknowledging systemic problems of a formally established military incarceration system.

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