Stanford prison experiment

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The Stanford prison experiment was an infamous psychological experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo et al in 1971. Since condemned for its unethical treatment of the participants, it demonstrated 'what happens when you put good people in an evil place'.[1]



The experiment was advertised through an advert in a local newspaper. It read: 'Male college students needed for psychological study of prison life: $15 per day for 1-2 weeks beginning Aug. 14. For further information & applications, come to room 248, Jordan Hall, Stanford U.' Around 70 students replied to the advert, which was further narrowed down via a series of interviews to just 24, after criminals and those with medical conditions had been removed. These were divided on the toss of a coin into two groups of 12, one group being prisoners, the others being guards. The prison was created by closing off a section of corridor in Stanford University. The doors were altered. The corridor linking the 'cells' was the only place prisoners were allowed to walk, eat, or exercise. A video camera was positioned at one end of the corridor, and a small closet served as 'solitary confinement'. No windows or clocks were extant, resulting in some alterations to the body clocks of the prisoners.

Arrival of the prisoners

The prisoners were taken from their homes and were kept blindfolded in a real prison for a little while before being transferred to the fake prison. They were introduced to the wardens individually, and then sprayed and strip-searched. The prisoners were then issued with a smock, which they wore with no underclothes almost continually. It had their number on both sides. A heavy chain was bolted around their foot. These were used to emasculate the participants. The number was used to refer to the prisoners. They shared cells with other prisoners.

Arrival of the guards

The guards had little instruction in how to discipline the prisoners. They came up with their own rules. They worked in shifts of eight hours, with three working at the time. They started asserting their authority by waking them during the night for the purpose of reciting their prisoner numbers, and making them do push-ups for infractions of the rules.


The rebellion commenced on the second day. The prisoners ripped off their numbers and barricaded themselves into the cells. The guards were unsure about what to do, and decided to fight force with force and attacked the prisoners with fire extinguishers. They then stripped the prisoners, removed their beds and placed the ringleaders in solitary confinement. They then decided physical punishment was too inefficient and tried psychological punishment instead. One cell was designated as a privilege cell. Prisoners in the privilege cell were given good food, received their uniforms back and were allowed to wash. They then swapped the prisoners around, which created distrust amongst the prisoners. The guards then started to enforce extremely harsh rules, not allowing prisoners to visit the toilet and making them defecate in buckets.

The Later Experiment

One prisoner started suffering terrible emotional disturbances after 36 hours. Researchers first thought that they were faking it, though eventually gave him an interview. They offered him the chance to have no harassment in return for being an informant. However, when he returned he declared that 'you can't leave. You can't quit.' This heightened the feeling of imprisonment. After going into a massive rage, he ended up being released. Parents were then allowed to visit. To ensure that they did not request for their sons to be released, they groomed the prisoners and played music on the intercom. Many arbitrary rules were given, but they complied. Some panicked when they saw how bad their sons were looking but the guards deferred the blame onto their sons. An escape plan was then heard of by the guards. The rumour was that the released prisoner would break in and free them. The researchers should have investigated why this was happening; instead, they came up with plans to stop the break-in. These ranged from inserting a confederate in to moving the prisoners to another floor. At this point the researchers were very much into their roles. The anticipated break-in never occurred; the prisoners were then subjected to punishment such as menial tasks and push-ups. A priest entered and offered to get legal aid for the prisoners; most said yes. After just six days, the experiment was ended early due to the worrying nature of the prisoner's behaviour.


  1. P. Zimbardo