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The Stanford Experiment

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Psychology professor Philip Zimbardo tried to show the influence of stereotyped role-playing onto behavior of a person who performs it. Using the examples of guards and prisoners, he intended to prove that role-playing can exclude person’s own morality and ethic from their behavior. According to the opinion of the majority, the free will is much higher than situational factors. The experiment conducted in 1971 disproved this assumption and provided the food for thought. The results can explain the ideological hating including wars caused by this way of identification.


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Professor and his colleagues conducted this experiment at Stanford University positioning 24 college students into a mock prison made out of the 35-foot part of the basement corridor of the psychology building walls at the university. Three laboratory rooms served as small cells (6x9 ft.), the furniture was removed and the usual doors were replaced by black steel barred ones. The superintendent of the experiment was Philip Zimbardo and an undergraduate research assistant performed the role of the warden (Haney, 1973). The main idea of the experiment was to explore the effects of the guard and prisoner roles in the context of the prison environment simulation; therefore, according to the instructions and contracts, people who played the roles of the guards were in the position of unlimited power over the lives of other people who were the prisoners. The aim of such experiment was to verify the assumption that abusive behavior in the prison may be caused by innate features of guards and prisoners. The professor designed the experiment resembling the way disorientation, deindividualization and depersonalization occur (Haney, 1973).


Once all the preparations were completed, the experiment came to its beginning. Testers randomly divided students into two groups named the guards and the prisoners. After that, all the participants were instructed and the contracts were concluded.

Prisoners were almost deprived of rights and had to remain in their clls 24 hours per day during the whole duration of the experiment. They received the explanation regarding the suspension of their basic civil rights and continuous surveillance during this experimental imprisonment which implied they had little or no privacy. Yet, testers did not give the prisoners any concrete instructions about the behavior during the experiment (Haney, 1973).

Unlike the prisoners, the guards were informed of their behavior, but not very well. They received the description of only the main features of guards and were briefly informed about how to be a guard. Their task was to sustain the proper order within the prison so that to provide its effective functioning (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). Nevertheless, the peculiarities of the duty they implemented were not distinctively detailed. It was only stated that the simulation of the given scenario must be kept within the scopes of pragmatic and ethical considerations (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). Apart from that, the guards had to deal with unpredictable types of situations including attempted escape of prisoners or prison riot. It should be mentioned, that the people performing the role of the guards believed that the aim of the experiment was a detailed analysis of prisoners’ behavior and that they are not under examination (Haney, 1973).

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In the guard instructions before the beginning of the experiment, professor Zimbardo explained the guards that they can create feelings of boredom to make themselves be silent, imbue the prisoners a sense of fear, and a feeling that they are under constant control with no privacy and no freedom of action. The guards were supposed to take away the personalities of prisoners (Zimbardo, 1989).

The Process of the Experiment

The Stanford prison experiment took place on 14th-20th August 1971. The “prisoners” were unexpectedly arrested by the police at their homes, searched, and carried to the police station from where they were transported to the mock-prison. There, the prisoners passed through the standard procedure of a real prison: striped, sprayed, made to stand naked in the cell yard for a while, and finally, being given the uniforms they were put to their cells and ordered to be silent (Zimbardo, 1989).

The guards greeted the prisoners, read aloud their rights and rules of institution for them to be memorized. The prisoners were given ID numbers to be referred to instead of the real names. The following day, the riot of prisoners occurred. The guards worked extra hours to break the revolt. They attacked rioters with fire extinguishers without supervising from the research group (Haney, 1973). The experiment was planned to last two weeks, but it had to be stopped on the 6th day due to the unexpected and uncontrolled behaviors of both guards and prisoners.

The details of “efforts” of guards to maintain the order during six days are as follows: hour-long ordeals during prisoner counts (the first prisoner count lasted 10 minutes, the last count – several hours), frequently with physical punishment; bathroom became a privilege (frequently refused); mattresses from some cells were removed and as a result prisoners were forced to sleep on a concrete floor; cleaning of toilets with bare hands; nudity; sexual humiliation (Haney, 1973).

Development Stage of the Participants

Students who were engaged in the study were thoroughly selected. Each participant was chosen according to the following criteria: physical and mental stability, matureness, the absence of involvement in anti-social life. The researchers also interviewed each student before the experiment to be sure there were no pathology even in their family. Such were the participants before the experiment.

On the 6th day after the experiment had been cancelled, “the prisoners” were interviewed. They were asked if they would forfeit the money promised for the participation in the experiment if the experimentators were to parole them. The most of the prisoners replied positively. After the hearing, the prisoners were told to return to their cells and they did despite having the ability to stop this madness and go away being free people and having the free will, which implies that they obeyed perceiving themselves as the real prisoners and considering the experiment to be a real imprisonment.

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