Stanford Prison experiment posted on YouTube

The Stanford Prison experiment was a very famous -- now infamous -- experiment in social psychology that was conducted in 1971 by Dr. Phillip Zimbardo, Stanford psychology professor. You probably remember him if you took a high school or college intro to psychology course because he made a very popular set of instructional videos on psychology that are often used in such courses.

The experiment randomly assigned male undergraduate students to participate in a two week mock prison. They were randomly assigned to be guards and inmates. However, things went horribly wrong. The guards faced a rebellion by the inmates. One inmate had a psychotic break. In essence, the participants began to buy into their assigned social roles. Dr. Zimbardo did nothing to stop this from happening. At day 6 he was convinced to stop the experiment early by his graduate student Christina Maslach. (At the time they were dating. They are now married.)

Here is the description of the experiment from the SciAm blog (where I about this):

Here's a cursory summary of the Stanford Prison Experiment: The basement of the Stanford psychology department was converted into a makeshift prison environment--old offices became cells, a closet became a room for solitary confinement and a room at the end of the corridor (or yard) became the guards' room. Twenty-four male, college students , found to have no previous psychological problems, were selected for the study and then, by flip of a coin, assigned to be either prisoners or guards. After a relatively playful first day of settling into their roles, the prisoners became cagey and insolent and the guards became controlling and sadistic. On day two, one prisoner--who is now a prison psychologist--began acting out a psychotic episode, which then became a real nervous breakdown, and had to be excused from the experiment. At least one other prisoner also had to leave under somewhat similar circumstances, which usually began with them being punished for acting out. A new prisoner was brought in a few days into the experiment. He was a beacon of non-conformity whose actions--refusing to eat sausage served to him at multiple meal times--and subsequent punishment, having to tell another inmate he loved him and many hours in solitary confinement eventually led to the termination of the experiment after six days. It was supposed to last two weeks.

Throughout all of this--save at least two occasions when he intervened and allowed prisoners to leave or offered them a plea bargain--Zimbardo just stroked his fine beard and watched as his the players he'd cast in this situational quandary began to take really inhabit their roles. The professor seemed to be overwhelmed and himself too caught up--he admits as much now--in his multiple roles as principal investigator, prison superintendent and responsible adult to notice the ethical grey area, into which the experiment had waded. It wasn't until a female grad student sitting in his office while he rapturously watched the prison's hidden camera feed essentially called him a monster that he realized a line (or several) probably had been crossed.

Whether or not you think it was right to run this experiment, the significance of this experiment in psychology became strikingly clear during the Abu Gharib prison scandal. Zimbardo had this to say about how to interpret that abuse:

Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo, who led the Stanford prison study in which two dozen college students were randomly selected to play the roles of prisoners or guards in a simulated jail, believes that his experiment has striking similarities to the Abu Gharib prison situation. "I have exact, parallel pictures of naked prisoners with bags over their heads who are being sexually humiliated by the prison guards from the 1971 study," he said. Professor Zimbardo explains that prisons offer an environment where the balance of power is so unequal that even normal people without any apparent prior psychological problems can become brutal and abusive unless great efforts are made by the institution to control the expression of guards' hostile impulses. Of the Stanford and Iraq prisons, he states, "It's not that we put bad apples in a good barrel. We put good apples in a bad barrel. The barrel corrupts anything that it touches."

What do I think about this whole thing?

Well, first I have to disclose that I was a TA for Phillip Zimbardo for the Intro. to Psych course at Stanford while I was there (I think he still teaches it). My feelings about him and about this experiment were always ambivalent. (Perhaps, they are somewhat tainted because he would regularly send political emails to the class in the run-up to the Iraq war, a behavior I found -- then and now -- rude and presumptuous.) With respect to the experiment I think he meant well, but I also think a reasonable person -- much less a social psychologist who knew the power of social roles -- could have forecast what was going to happen. As a scientist working with people we have to anticipate what the negative consequences, however unlikely, could be. He failed to adequately do so.

Anyway, you can make your own judgments because a documentary about the experiment narrated by Zimbardo has been placed in segments on YouTube. Here are those segments. (It is about 50 minutes of video, but interesting and worth watching when you have time.)






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Oh yeah, you can totally predict how that experiment will play out 30+ years after it has been done, analyzed, and incorporated into pop culture.


By Thomas Jefferson (not verified) on 08 May 2009 #permalink

I always wonder if people are drawn to psychology because they are mentally disturbed themselves. Zimbardo seems to have enjoyed the experiment in a sick way, and I would bet he did have some idea of what would happen. Your interesting tidbit about him dating and marrying his grad student at the time just adds to the ick factor.

Thank you so much for this article and the links. I think this was an important experiment (for all its ethical wackiness), right next to the Milgram studies. Everyone should watch this documentary.

A German film "Das Experiment" (2001)was based on this experiment. It exaggerates the experiment a bit, but is still defenately worth watching. The film has won awards, amongst which a nomination to the Political Film Society USA is rather mentionable.

None of the video links work. But anyone can probably search for them on the Youtube or any other video website.

The real life reality of all this is that is does happen in all prisons behind the walls out of site from the public eye & not all TV or newspaper companies report on the events that occur inside.

Being a victim of police brutality I already know somewhat how it may have felt to be in a similar situation. Some may say it was a deserved act from the police for whatever I did. But in real life, if you were in my position as a juvenile handuffed behind your back then beaten in an interview room for no real apparent reason (no I wasn't resisting arrest either); you would not want anyone else to ever go through what I endured. If you think I got what i deserved then you'd have to wait until it's your turn or until someone in your family is attacked.

The problem with talented and clever people is that they're too clever by half. Zimbardo is pooh-poohed for not grasping the obvious.

Always be suspicious of the intelligence of someone who critiques social science for pointing out the obvious. Clever moron.

Zimbardo and Milgram are very much responsible for creating the obviousness about what at the time was anything but. And many people still don't believe that situational factors can have the impact that Zimbardo and Milgram demonstrated.

You managed the difficult of feat of adopting hindsight by 20 or 30 years.

And taking Zimbardo to task for injecting politics into the pristine waters of academia is a tad too much. I think anyone who doesn't openly express an outrage over a bogus war started for bogus reasons is seriously ethically challenged. It's to Zimbardo's credit that had the good sense to see it before the fiasco happened. I imagine you're still waiting to grab onto hindsight.

You're about as a serious student of science as a science correspondent on Entertainment Tonight.