Important Lessons From the Stanford Prison Experiment

Over at Pure Pedantry, Jake informs us that a documentary about Dr. Phillip Zimbardo's infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment has been uploaded onto YouTube in five parts. Jake's post includes the five videos (about 50 minutes total) and some background on the experiment and Dr. Zimbardo, whom Jake was once a TA for back at Stanford.

In the experiment, students were randomly divided into "guards" and "prisoners" and forced to work or live in a makeshift prison for two weeks. The participants adopted their respective roles so easily, with such shocking and destructive outcomes, that the experiment was halted over one week early. Although an experiment of such questionable ethics would surely not gain approval from an institutional review board today, there are still quite a few lessons we can take home from it.

The Prison Experiment demonstrated, in a controlled and scientific manner, just how great an effect the environment has on our individual behavior, capable of trumping what we would otherwise consider our steadfast moral and behavioral guidelines. Individuality so easily melts away as the social environment begins to define the individual.

Although, as Zimbardo points out himself, this study is relevant to a variety of facets of everyday life, from schools to prisons to personal relationships--whenever there is a power difference between two people--this study is still most poignant, to me at least, in how it showed that lurking beneath us all is a dark side that can easily be released under the right conditions.

When a scandal like Abu Ghraib occurs, a natural reaction is to point fingers and blame the individual, assuring ourselves that this is just the work of a few bad seeds. The Prison Experiment clearly demonstrates, however, that it isn't something unique to the abusive guard that makes him so. Rather, the blame lies on the environment: partially on the intrinsic power differences existing in a prison or similar situation and partially on the higher ups who have perpetuated and enabled such an environment to persist (the role that Zimbardo admits to being guilty of himself in his experiment).

By appeasing ourselves each time with a few scapegoats, rather learning from our mistakes--and the results of the Prison Experiment--we ignore the fundamental causes of such behavior, allowing this abuse to continue in a variety of situations. Occasionally, such abuse erupts into a scandal like Abu Ghraib, but it is quickly swept to the back of the mind, dooming us to repeat the same again.


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A very cool movie adaptation of this experiment is Das Experiment, one of the best German movies around. About Abu Ghraib, it's not a natural reaction to point to the individual, it is a learned reaction, like a Pavlov reflex. It is part of the social defense mechanism that sacrifices the individual to preserve the structure of society. The same applies to employees that get sacked to save the face of their company (or many times, of the manager).
While I fear this trend is unavoidable and growing along with the size of humanity, we can work on stoppping people from hijacking the mechanism (like the aforementioned manager). But wouldn't that also serve the social against the individual? Hmm...

That experiment was one of the first things, after revulsion and sadness, that crossed my mind when I heard about Abu Ghraib. I suspect that there are several early psych experiments which, while they would rightly be nixed by review boards today, deserve greater public attention. Milgram's study of authority is a prime example. Somewhat less controversion, but also valuable would be the studies on diffusion of responsibitliy.

While not a cure all by any means, awareness of environmental influences on behavior can increase the likelyhood that a "better" behavior will be adopted.

What I found shocking was how unprofessionally the whole experiment was run. The makeshift prison didn't resemble a true prison at all. The prisoners were forced to wear dresses and shower caps and the guards were told to refer to the prisoners only by numbers because the purpose of Zimbardo's prison was to humiliate and deindividuate the prisoners. That's not the purpose of a true prison (rehabilitation is). Zimbardo's conclusion that the prisoner-guard relationship is analogous to husband-wife and parent-child relationships was creepy and thoroughly unjustified by experiment.

By Herb West (not verified) on 18 Jan 2007 #permalink

I would certainly like to think that the purpose of a real prison is to rehabilitate the prisoners, but I'm not sure that the reality on the ground there indicates that this ideal is the actual case.


Ideally the true purpose of prison is rehabilitation, but education and rehabilitative programs are the first to get axed in a budget crunch.

While I was regularly drilling in the National Guard, I had the opportunity to get to know several men who were correctional officers in the Texas state prison system. The picture I came away with from their descriptions is that the system is a highly tenuous balance between what is legally mandated and falls under someones oversight and how much money there is in the budget. At one point in the late nineties one particular officer told me flat out that all state-sponsored rehabilitation programs had been cut.

The experiment has a deep moral significance, which Nick touched on only lightly: what the very worst among us are capable of, every one of us is capable of too. All we can do is hope that if the opportunity is presented to us, we will resist. But we never know.

Great post. Thanks for directing my attention to this experiment.

Controlled? I think not.

Strike that. This isn't even scientific.

1) The PI played a role in the experiment. Is he analyzing his own behavior in his "prison"?
2) The PI clearly had an idea of what he wanted to see in his prison and these a priori notions were communicated to the guards, prisoners, and outsiders visiting the "prison." Everyone was told how to act beforehand and the situation played out accordingly.
3) Surprise, surprise! The PI found exactly what he told everyone that he was looking for! But this leaves the question: Did the environment itself change the participants or did he tell them how their behavior should change?
4) Random it's not! These are a self-selected group of participants. These people want, to some extent, to participate.

As a biophysicist, I cringe at some aspects of the experiement, but I don't think any aspects of the design were out of line for this type of psychological research.

The particpants were self-selected, obviously, but they underwent extensive testing, and, most importantly, they were randomly divided into the guard and prisoner groups.

As a molecular biologist, these comments are basically me cringing. I still can't imagine doing any kind of psychological study in which you explicitly tell your subjects what kind of behavior you are looking for.

Certainly, and in the psychological experiments I participated in (a dubious requirement of my intro to psych class back in undergrad) we were not told what type of behavior was expected of us. In this experiment, the prisoners were definitely not informed of any expectations, just the guards. I guess it's understandable, because the PI would have to stress heavily the fact that the guards could absolutely not inflict any physical harm. That alone could influence their behavior to the other extreme, so possibly he was trying to strike some sort of balance. It's too bad he was so explicit, but I'm not sure if there was a better strategy available here.

I think we're coming closer to agreement. Ah, Saturday night in Oxford.

The students knew it was only an experiment. Still we can learn a lot for real life. In Germany we had a time not too long ago, where there were far too many sadistic guards and too few Schindlers. My personal conclusion is to watch my own behaviour, stay critical, keep some common sense and try to think ahead. This may seem little but I unfortunately know some people for whom that is already a lot too much. So let us stay busy working on it and on ourselves. At least we have the opportunity to criticize occasional bad behaviour and enduringly bad behaving people. And there is always space for some further evolution. Bless you!

By Guenter Bluemel (not verified) on 25 Jan 2007 #permalink