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What Was the Stanford Prison Experiment?

The Stanford prison experiment was a controversial psychology study conducted in 1971 by Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues at Stanford University. The goal of the experiment was to investigate how much our social roles and situations impact how we behave. The researchers set up a simulated prison environment to observe the behavior of “prisoners” and “guards.” The experiment had to be cut short after only 6 days due to the psychological trauma experienced by the participants. Despite its ethical issues, the Stanford prison experiment offered important insights into human behavior and authority.

Background and Setup of the Stanford Prison Experiment

Philip Zimbardo and his research team designed the Stanford prison experiment to examine how people adjust to authoritative roles in social situations. They wanted to investigate how easily regular people could behave sadistically when given power over others.

The experiment took place in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford University. The researchers turned the basement into a mock prison with small cells, bars, and surveillance areas. Participants were randomly assigned to be either “prisoners” or “guards.”

The prisoner participants were “arrested” at their homes without warning and immediately taken to the mock prison. The guards were given uniforms and instructed to keep order over the prisoners while avoiding violence. Zimbardo himself took on the role of the prison superintendent, allowing the events to unfold without interference.

The simulation was scheduled to run for 14 days to give the participants time to truly adjust to their roles. However, the experiment spun out of control fairly quickly and had to be stopped after only 6 days.

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Daily Events from the Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford prison experiment quickly descended into chaos as the “guards” embraced their authoritative roles and subjected the “prisoners” to various forms of psychological torture. Here is a brief overview of what happened each day:

Day 1 (August 14th)

The prisoners are unexpectedly arrested, searched, stripped naked, deloused, and given uniforms and ID numbers. They adapt slowly to their new environment. The guards are given no specific training and must figure out how to establish order.

Day 2 (August 15th)

The prisoners stage a rebellion by barricading their cell doors and taunting the guards. The guards respond by using fire extinguishers to force the prisoners away from the doors and into submission. Prisoners are sprayed down naked with hoses and forced to clean out toilet bowls with their bare hands.

Day 3 (August 16th)

Guards force prisoners to repeat their ID numbers and do menial tasks like push ups and cleaning toilets. Some prisoners begin showing signs of extreme stress and anxiety. Guards deny prisoners food, beds, and access to bathrooms to establish total control.

Day 4 (August 17th)

Two prisoners named 8612 and 819 break down and have to leave the experiment early. Guards put one defiant prisoner in “solitary confinement,” a dark closet. Zimbardo’s girlfriend Christina Maslach observes the experiment and objects to the appalling conditions.

Day 5 (August 18th)

Guards force the prisoners to count off their numbers repeatedly and punish them with push ups for mistakes. Rumors spread that prisoner 8612 is going to break back in and help them escape.

Day 6 (August 19th)

After Maslach’s complaints, Zimbardo interviews the prisoners and guards and ultimately decides to end the experiment early.

Here is a summary of the main events in table form:

DateKey Events
August 14Prisoners arrested and processed
August 15Prisoners rebel, guards use force
August 16Harassment and abuse continues
August 17Prisoners reach breaking point
August 18Prisoners forced to count, plan escape
August 19Experiment ends early

Results and Conclusions of the Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford prison experiment demonstrated how dramatically ordinary people can change their behavior when they are put into powerful social roles. The “guards” embraced their new roles rapidly and began cruelly abusing their power. The “prisoners” also struggled to adjust to their powerless position, experiencing depression, anxiety, and extreme stress.

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Zimbardo concluded that people tend to conform to social roles, obeying orders and following situational norms rather than acting according to their own moral compass. The study highlighted how social environments and systems affect human behavior more than individual personality.

While the Stanford prison experiment offered frightening insights, it faced heavy criticism for being unethical. Critics argued that it was unnecessarily cruel and caused long-term psychological damage to participants. The experiment could not be replicated by other psychologists today due to modern ethical standards for human subjects research.

Nonetheless, the Stanford prison experiment remains one of the most famous studies in psychology. It challenged conventional ideas about human nature and illustrated how people blindly obey authority figures. Zimbardo’s prison simulation continues to be referenced in debates about authority, power, and social influence.


Here are some common questions that arise when examining the Stanford prison experiment:

Why is the Stanford prison experiment unethical?

The Stanford prison experiment is considered unethical because it caused severe emotional distress and psychological harm to the participants. Randomly arresting college students and subjecting them to abusive conditions without consent violated basic ethical guidelines for human subjects research. The study could never gain approval from an ethics review board today.

How did the Stanford prison experiment end?

Zimbardo ended the Stanford prison experiment after just 6 days instead of the planned 14 days. Complaints from graduate student Christina Maslach led Zimbardo to interview the prisoners and guards, making him realize how traumatic the experience was becoming. Several prisoners had already broken down emotionally, so he decided to terminate the experiment early.

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What are the main criticisms of the Stanford prison experiment?

Critics argue that the Stanford prison experiment had poor scientific methodology. Zimbardo failed to remain a neutral observer, influencing the outcome by acting as the prison superintendent. The sample size was tiny with only 24 male participants. The results cannot be generalized since the participants were ordinary students, not real prisoners or guards.

Could the Stanford prison experiment happen today?

It is highly unlikely that a simulation like the Stanford prison experiment could occur today. Strict ethical guidelines established by review boards prohibit experiments that cause emotional, psychological, or physical harm. However, some critics have argued that elements of Zimbardo’s study could still occur implicitly in places like crowded jails where dehumanization happens.

What are the positive outcomes of the Stanford prison experiment?

While unethical, the Stanford prison experiment did illustrate how everyday people can be led to perpetrate cruelty by social pressures. It showed how quickly we adopt social norms and obey figures of authority. The study sparked critical conversations about the dangers of conformity and passivity in the face of abuse. It compelled scholars to further examine issues like prisoner abuse and systemic violence.

Conclusion on the Significance of the Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford prison experiment was profoundly unethical, yet it undeniably exposed truths about human psychology we cannot ignore. It demonstrated our deep-rooted obedience to authority and the danger of blind conformity. However, it also highlighted our responsibility as individuals to make moral choices, even in the face of strong situational pressures.

While external environments shape behavior, we ultimately have a choice in how we respond. The prisoners subjected to cruelty could have organized non-violent protests, and the guards could have resisted the impulse to abuse power. Moving forward, we must use the insights from Zimbardo’s work to promote justice over injustice – to speak out against prisoner mistreatment, fight against violent systems, and act humanely despite external forces. By remaining vigilant about our own actions, we can learn from the darkness in experiments like Stanford’s to bring more light into the world.

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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