The Ugly Truth About The Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment is one of psychology's most notorious, and disturbingly telling, explorations of the relationship between self-identity and social role. Conducted at Stanford University in California in 1971, and funded by the U.S Office of Naval Research, the experiment involved the participants' complete immersion into the roles of prisoners and prison guards. The basement of Stanford University, as described in Simply Psychology, was kitted out to look exactly like a prison, complete with cells, shower rooms, cafeteria, and the like. The researcher in charge, Dr. Philip Zimbardo (who played the warden), conducted psychological evaluations of would-be participants, and recruited the most stable young men to be prisoners and guards. Which would be the dominant mode of behavior: dispositional, or situational? In other words, would the participants act like themselves, or would they merely behave according to the social norms expected of their role?

What started out as a rather interesting, if extreme, LARP transformed into an horrific display of humiliation, brutality, and subservience. What was originally planned to be a two-week study was cut short at six days. In that time, the guards adopted cruel and abusive behavior, such as forcing prisoners to clean toilets with their bare hands, placing them in solitary confinement, chaining them in place, and stripping them naked. Prisoners donned their fabricated roles and staged a full-blown rebellion. They wept as they used their IDs rather than their names; several suffered a complete emotional breakdown.

Loss of self, loss of dignity, loss of empathy

Out of all the potential explanations for the behavior of the participants, two terms stand out: deindividuation and learned helplessness. Deindividuation is defined as the loss of self in lieu of group norms, especially in the case of highly stereotyped roles like the "tough but fair" law enforcement officer. This can account for the guards believing that they were just doing their jobs. Learned helplessness can help explain why the prisoners eventually gave up: Their efforts to resist produced no meaningful impact. 

When asked to explain their behavior, some of the guards — only a couple of whom self-identified as naturally assertive — simply said that authority "felt fun." The more dependent the prisoners grew, the more the guards resented them. The prisoners became objects to revile rather than persons in need of rehabilitation. One guard, after the fact, said that he was shocked at what he became capable of when placed in a position where he had to "act" a part.

The Stanford Prison Experiment has been criticized for obvious ethical reasons, though during the study, only one researcher out of 50 objected to what was happening. The study has also been called out for lacking ecological validity and population validity. The results of the study, no matter how enlightening, can't be readily applied to a non-experimental setting, and the population itself (American males) doesn't represent an inclusive group of cultures, ethnicities, and genders.