Stanford Prison Experiment: What Was It?
Before The Jail: 60 Days In, there came the original experiment that saw average people incarcerated: the Stanford Prison Experiment, in 1973. Four decades later and it is still being talked about as one of the most controversial psychological experiment to ever be conducted. So what exactly was it and why was it so important?
The work of Philip Zimbardo, a psychology professor at Stanford University, the experiment was designed to study how easily people would revert to the classic guard and inmate roles, looking at how everyday people could become corrupted by power. Middle class, white male college students were enrolled in a prison simulation experiment, split into two groups of 10 prisoners and 11 prison guards.
To keep things authentic, the ‘prisoners’ were taken from their homes with no prior warning, arrested, frisked and locked up in the university’s basement, which had been done out as a prison, replete with cells and barred windows. Things only got worse for them there on out, as they were stripped, deloused and given standard prison clothing and bedding, to make sure they were reduced to the same state as your average detainee. By the end of the experiment, their identities had been reduced to their inmate numbers only.
The guards, meanwhile, were decked out in identical uniforms, equipped with whistles and clubs, as well as sunglasses so they couldn’t make eye contact with their inmates.
Within hours, the volunteers had settled into their roles, to the point where, on only the second day, a rebellion broke out. As the experiment progressed, the men behaved increasingly like COs and convicts— the prisoners dependent and rejected and the guards acting increasingly like sadistic despots. They would harass the prisoners, taking away their clothes and bedding so they were left naked in their concrete cells. They weren’t even allowed to go to the toilet, unless it was to clean it with their hands. One participant dropped out after he started screaming and crying uncontrollably.
Six days later and the experiment ended early. Most of the guards were disappointed to see the end of it.
Needless to say, the results proved contentious: after all, how ethical is to subject innocent people to the emotional trauma the prisoners suffered? Not to mention letting the average college student know he too is capable of becoming an immoral tyrant. What it did show is how much we can be shaped by circumstances and how corruptive power and authority can be. It’s since been used to explain everything from prison riots to the brutal acts by U.S. military in Guantanamo Bay and prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As for the participants themselves, none appeared to be affected after their release. After they were let out, the prisoners and guards basically went on to lead normal lives. The most sadistic guard now owns his own mortgage business, one prisoner became a forensic psychologist and another a teacher, which gives some hope for the participants of The Jail: 60 Days In. They might emerge unscathed after all.