Stanford prison experiment      From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

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The Stanford prison experiment was a study of the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. The experiment was conducted from August 14th to 20th , 1971 by a team of researchers led by Psychology professor Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University. Twenty-four students were selected out of 75 to play the prisoners and live in a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. Roles were assigned randomly. The participants adapted to their roles well beyond what even Zimbardo himself expected, leading the “Officers” to display authoritarian measures and ultimately to subject some of the prisoners to torture. In turn, many of the prisoners developed passive attitudes and accepted physical abuse, and, at the request of the guards, readily inflicted punishment on other prisoners who attempted to stop it. The experiment even affected Zimbardo himself, who, in his capacity as “Prison Superintendent,” lost sight of his role as psychologist and permitted the abuse to continue as though it were a real prison. Five of the prisoners were upset enough by the process to quit the experiment early, and the entire experiment was abruptly stopped after only six days. The experimental process and the results remain controversial. The entire experiment was filmed, with excerpts made publicly available.

The “prison” itself was in the basement of Stanford’s Jordan Hall, which had been converted into a mock jail. An undergraduate research assistant was the “warden” and Zimbardo the “superintendent.” Zimbardo set up a number of specific conditions on the participants which he hoped would promote disorientation, depersonalization and deindividualisation.

The researchers provided weapons—wooden batons which could not be used to punish the prisoners, meant only to establish their status—and clothing that simulated that of a prison guard—khaki shirt and pants from a local military surplus store. They were also given mirrored sunglasses to prevent eye contact.

Prisoners wore ill-fitting smocks and stocking caps, rendering them constantly uncomfortable. Guards called prisoners by their assigned numbers, sewn on their uniforms, instead of by name. A chain around their ankles reminded them of their roles as prisoners.

The researchers held an orientation session for guards the day before the experiment, during which they were told that they could not physically harm the prisoners. They’ll have no privacy… We’re going to take away their individuality in various ways. In general what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness. That is, in this situation we’ll have all the power and they’ll have none.”

The participants chosen to play the part of prisoners were arrested at their homes and charged with armed robbery.


For his mock prison set up, Zimbardo used the basement of Stanford University’s Psychology building and selected 24 students to either play the role of the prison guard or the prisoner. He selected this group out of a group of 70 who all had no criminal background, psychological impairments, or medical problems. They were all signed up to participate for between a 7 to 14 day period and receive $15 per day.

The set up

The small mock prison cells were set up to hold three prisoners each. There was a small space for the prison yard, solitary confinement, and a bigger room across from the prisoners for the guards and warden. The prisoners were to stay in their cells all day and night until the end of the study. The guards worked in teams of three for eight-hour shifts. The guards did not have to stay on site after their shift.


After a relatively uneventful first day, a riot broke out on the second day. The prisoners in cell 1 blockaded their cell door with their beds and took off their stocking caps. They refused to come out or do anything the guards told them to do. The guards realized they needed more of them to handle the riot. The guards from other shifts volunteered to work extra hours and worked together to break the prisoner revolt, attacking the prisoners with fire extinguishers without supervision from the research staff. The guards realized they could handle the 9 cell mates with 9 guards, but were unsure how they were to do so by use of only 3 guards per shift. One then suggested that they use psychological tactics to control them instead. They set up a “privilege cell” in which prisoners who were not involved in the riot were treated with special rewards such as a good meal instead of their normal bland portions. The “privilege cell” inmates chose not to eat the meal in order to stay uniform with their fellow prisoners.

After only 36 hours, one prisoner began to act “crazy,” Zimbardo says; “#8612 then began to act crazy, to scream, to curse, to go into a rage that seemed out of control. It took quite a while before we became convinced that he was really suffering and that we had to release him.”

Guards forced the prisoners to count off repeatedly as a way to learn their prison numbers, and to reinforce the idea that this was their new identity. Guards soon used these prisoner counts as another method to harass the prisoners, using physical punishment such as protracted exercise for errors in the prisoner count. Sanitary conditions declined rapidly, made worse by the guards refusing to allow some prisoners to urinate or defecate. As punishment, the guards would not let the prisoners empty the sanitation bucket. Mattresses were a valued item in the prison, so the guards would punish prisoners by removing their mattresses, leaving them to sleep on concrete. Some prisoners were forced to go nude as a method of degradation.

On the fourth day, some prisoners were talking about trying to escape. Zimbardo and the guards attempted to move the prisoners to the more secure local police station, but officials there said they could no longer participate in Zimbardo’s experiment.

Several guards became increasingly cruel as the experiment continued. Experimenters said that approximately one-third of the guards exhibited genuine sadistic tendencies. Most of the guards were upset when the experiment concluded after only 6 days.

Zimbardo argued that the prisoner participants had internalized their roles, based on the fact that some had stated that they would accept parole even with the attached condition of forfeiting all of their experiment-participation pay. Yet, when their parole applications were all denied, none of the prisoner participants quit the experiment. Zimbardo argued they had no reason for continued participation in the experiment after having lost all monetary compensation, yet they did, because they had internalized the prisoner identity, they thought themselves prisoners, hence, they stayed.

Prisoner No. 416, a newly admitted stand-by prisoner, expressed concern over the treatment of the other prisoners. The guards responded with more abuse. When he refused to eat his sausages, saying he was on a hunger strike, guards confined him to a closet without a light-bulb and called it “solitary confinement; the guards then instructed the other prisoners to repeatedly punch on the door while shouting at 416. “The guards used this incident to turn the other prisoners against No. 416, saying the only way he would be released from solitary confinement was if they gave up their blankets and slept on their bare mattresses, which all but one refused to do.

Zimbardo aborted the experiment early when Christina Maslach, a graduate student he was then dating (and later married), objected to the appalling conditions of the prison.

Even though the study was supposed to last for two weeks it had to be cut short due to the treatment of the prisoners by the guards and the excess anxiety and stress. The prison guards fell into the role of the “guard” but due to their lack of rules they took their roles to a higher level. They would abuse the prisoners by making them scrub toilets, do countless push-ups and whatever else they could think of for punishment. The students who were guards became deindividualized and lost a sense of self. Before the study was called off, five of the prisoners suffered from severe emotional trauma and had to be released early. Even Zimbardo himself became deindividualized and fell into the role of warden. He would overlook the abusive behaviors portrayed by the guards until one of his fifty colleagues, Chirstina Maslach, spoke up.


The Stanford experiment ended on August 20, 1971, only six days after it began instead of the fourteen it was supposed to have lasted. That day, Zimbardo called both the guards and inmates to a meeting and announced that the ‘prison’ was closing down. The experiment’s result has been argued 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 of authority.

The results of the experiment are said to support situational attribution of behavior rather than dispositional attribution. In other words, it seemed the situation caused the participants’ behavior, rather than anything inherent in their individual personalities. In this way, it is compatible with the results of the also-famous 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.

Ethical criticisms

This study was cleared by the Ethics Code of the American Psychological Association, showing that experiments on paper can look very different than the way that they play out in reality. The experiment was criticized as being unethical and unscientific. Subsequently-adopted ethical standards of psychology would make it a breach of ethics to conduct such a study in more modern times. The study would violate the Ethics Code of the American Psychological Association, the Canadian Code of Conduct for Research Involving Humans, and the Belmont Report.

Peer-review criticisms

Because it was a field experiment, Dr. Zimbardo found it impossible to keep traditional scientific controls in place. He was unable to remain merely a neutral observer, instead influencing the direction of the experiment as its “superintendent.” Conclusions and observations drawn by the experimenters were largely subjective and anecdotal, and the experiment would be difficult for other researchers to reproduce.


Some said that the study was too deterministic: reports described significant differences in the cruelty of the guards, the worst of whom came to be nicknamed John Wayne. (This guard alleges he started the escalation of events between guards and prisoners after he began to emulate a character from the Paul Newman film Cool Hand Luke. He further intensified his actions because he was nicknamed “John Wayne,” even though he was trying to mimic actor Strother Martin, who had played the role of the sadistic Captain in the movie.) Most of the other guards were kinder and often did favors for prisoners.

The information pretty much ends on this note…mostly a whimper. It was an experiement, a failed experiment destined to fail. Analyse of the experiment is mostly backtracked, response to cause, not cause to response of human, perceived natural reaction. Ok…ok…if you shock a person with electricity, there are effects, the cause is the electricity…..hence my opinion the Study/Experiment is backwards. Guards and Prisoners were reversed. The analytical data is contrary to Cause and Effect, hence Effect and Cause.

If you really want to get Creepy, ruin a great song…The Beach Boys…..” Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by playing while reading the case study……Most if not all the above comes from Wikipedia.  The study/what ever was turned into a movie, German titled……..