Sci-Tech

Stanford Prison experiments, 40 years on

By Rebecca Davis 19 August 2011

Forty years ago this week, 24 students were ushered into the Stanford psychology building. They were to participate in a 14-day psychological study to test the effects of becoming either a prisoner or a prison guard, funded by the US Office of Naval Research and overseen by Stanford psych professor Philip Zimbardo. By REBECCA DAVIS.

To create the necessary conditions, the basement of the psychology department was converted into a mock prison. Zimbardo’s student subjects were divided arbitrarily into guards and prisoners. Zimbardo had instructed the guards that they were not allowed to physically harm the prisoners in any way, but should attempt to instil feelings of boredom and alienation.

On the first day, the student guards stood around awkwardly, failing to get into an authoritarian mentality. But on the second day something shifted. The prisoners staged a riot. The guards worked to quell the uprising, but realised that they would need to adopt psychological tactics to control them. What followed was five days of horror for the prisoners, who were stripped naked, deprived of sleep, constantly verbally taunted and made to wear bags over their heads. Many of the student prisoners suffered breakdowns and five quit early. The mock prison had to be shut down after only six days.

The experiment fascinated and horrified the world, with its chilling implication of the terrible things ordinary people are capable of doing in certain situations. Comparisons have been drawn in recent years between the Stanford Prison experiments and the behaviour of guards at Abu Ghraib.  Zimbardo was called in to consult on the Abu Ghraib problem.

To commemorate the anniversary, Stanford Magazine is running a fascinating retrospective on the study, featuring interviews with participants. Before the experiment, Zimbardo now says, “We expected that we would write some articles about it and move on”. The reality turned out shockingly differently. DM



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