Influence of Social Roles: The Stanford Prison Experiment
Stanford Prison Experiment was a landmark psychological study of the human response
to captivity, in particular, to the real world circumstances of prison life.
It was conducted in 1971 by Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University.
Subjects were randomly assigned to play the role of "prisoner" or
"guard". Those assigned to play the role of guard were given sticks
and sunglasses; those assigned to play the prisoner role were arrested by the
Palo Alto police department, deloused, forced to wear chains and prison garments,
and transported to the basement of the Stanford psychology department, which
had been converted into a makeshift jail.
Several of the guards became progressively more sadistic — particularly at
night when they thought the cameras were off, despite being picked by chance
out of the same pool as the prisoners.
The experiment very quickly got out of hand. A riot broke out on day two. One
prisoner developed a psychosomatic rash all over his body upon finding out that
his "parole" had been turned down. After only 6 days (of a planned
two weeks), the experiment was shut down, for fear that one of the prisoners
would be seriously hurt.
Although the intent of the experiment was to examine captivity, its result
has been used to demonstrate the impressionability and obedience of people when
provided with a legitimizing ideology and social and institutional support.
It is also used to illustrate cognitive dissonance theory and the power
It can be argued that the conclusions that Professor Zimbardo and others have
drawn from the Stanford Prison Experiment are not valid. Professor Zimbardo
acknowleges that he was not merely an observer in the experiment but an active
participant and in some cases it is clear he was influencing the direction the
For example, Professor Zimbardo cites the fact that all of the "guards"
wore sunglasses as an example of their dehumanization. However, the sunglasses
were not spontaneously chosen as apparel by the students; they were given to
them by Professor Zimbardo. The student "guards" were also issued
batons by Professor Zimbardo on their first day, which may have predisposed
them to consider physical force as an acceptable means of running the "prison".
Professor Zimbardo also acknowleges initiating several procedures that do not
occur in actual prisons, such as blindfolding incoming "prisoners",
making them wear women's clothing, not allowing them to wear underwear, not
allowing them to look out windows, and not allowing them to use their names.
Professor Zimbardo justifies this by stating that prison is a confusing and
dehumanizing experience and it was necessary to enact these procedures to put
the "prisoners" in the proper frame of mind. However, it opens the
question of whether Professor Zimbardo's simulation is an accurate reflection
of the reality of incarceration or a reflection of Professor Zimbardo's preconceived
opinions of what actual incarceration is like.
Does Zimbardo's study explain Abu Ghraib abuse?
The human rights abuses that occurred at the Abu Ghraib prison under the authority
of the American armed forces in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq war may be a
recent example of what happened in the experiment in real life. Soldiers were
thrust into the role of prison guards and began to sadistically torment prisoners
there and at other detention sites in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many of the specific
acts of humiliation were similar to those that occurred in the Stanford Prison
Experiment, according to Zimbardo.
This theory has been challenged by allegations by Seymour Hersh in the New
Yorker that these soldiers were in fact acting under direct orders of their
superiors as part of a top secret Pentagon intelligence gathering program authorized
by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Psychologist World is an online magazine dedicated to psychology, providing theory and experiment overviews, popular psychology articles and practical psychology guides. For details of content available with membership click here.