If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content
Current time:0:00Total duration:6:55

A closer look at the Stanford prison experiment

Video transcript

I want to take a moment to talk a little bit about the Zimbardo prison study and what conclusions we can draw from it but first I want you to remember that all of the participants were the same or very similar when I walked in they were all college students and they all had the same middle-class background I need all been screened for any kind of physical or psychological conditions before the start of the study and they also want to talk about the prison itself after watching my previous video I thought that it maybe gave the impression that the prisoners banded together and helped each other out and while there were a few instances of this behavior it really wasn't the norm in reality the prisoners were pretty distrustful of each other they saw each other as informants and the guards unequal treatment really didn't encourage solidarity they tended to reward those who they saw his good prisoners by giving them different privileges like better food and by allowing them to keep their mattresses and to wash themselves or brush their teeth after they had punished the rebellious prisoners by taking those things away and by giving privileges has some inmates and not others the guards really broke any Solidarity that the prisoners had I also want to note that while there were a number of participants in the prisoner condition that were released from the experiment because of emotional trauma none of the prisoners ever just stopped and left and they must have been aware that they were able to do so at least on some level because it was told to them at the beginning of the experiment it was in the consent form that they signed but they didn't and this always really confused me and it's possible that maybe some of them misunderstood and didn't think that they could leave maybe they somehow convinced each other to stay or maybe they knew that they could leave but they didn't want to forfeit any of the money that they were going to get for the experiment it really isn't clear but I just want to point out that while these participants were being treated like prisoners they were not actually prisoners they were volunteers who could have left at any point let's talk a little bit about the guards when questioned afterwards about why they had treated the prisoner so harshly especially in the face of the prisoners emotional distress many of them said that they thought that the prisoners were just faking it or that they were wimps or that they deserved it because they were troublemakers but really most of them didn't think that their behavior was all that extreme and they placed basically all of the blame for their behavior on the prisoners I mentioned this before in the last video but while a number of the prisoners left the study before the six days were up none of the guards left and in fact some of them were even upset that the experiment ended early and you might be wondering if there was any kind of personality trait that might explain why people behave the way that they did in this study and Zimbardo wondered that too and it turned out that there wasn't as far as any of the measures that they used could tell there was no one easy to define factor that caused people to act like they did what do we learn from all of this well what it really shows us is the influence that situations can have on our behavior and at much of what we do might be the result of situational attribution or the environment or situations that were put in even more than dispositional attribution or the internal characteristics or personalities that people have it also shows us that it becomes much easier to behave badly towards individuals who suffer from deindividuation or the loss of self which in this case was brought on by a number of things by the prisoners being forced to dress in the same smock and by making them be addressed as a number instead of their name it also shows us that bad behavior can result from cognitive dissonance that the guards knowing on some level that their behavior was inappropriate saw to decrease their dissonance or their mental distress by overly justifying their behaviors by saying that everything happened because the prisoners were wimps and that they were faking it or that they deserved this the study also shows us about the role of internalization because it seemed like that participants really internalized their prison roles they incorporated this role into their beliefs and let it influence their attitudes cognitions and behaviors but as important as the study is and is well known as it is there are a number of problems with the study and I think the most interesting problem stems from the role that Zimbardo himself played in the study specifically he decided to make himself the prison warden in order to better observe the saviors of the inmates but by doing so by placing himself within the situation he inadvertently compromised his objectivity he wasn't a neutral observer and in the end he was so involved that he wasn't able to realize when things had gone too far and so he passively allowed a lot of unethical behavior to occur in fact when he was questioned as to why he didn't stop the experiment earlier when the prisoner started to break down he himself claimed that he thought that they were just faking it in order to get released which is exactly what the guards had said another problem is that as far as study methodologies go this isn't really a good experiment what were the operational definitions of his dependent and independent variables what were his dependent and independent variables what is being manipulated what is being measured what were the controls in the study and also had a really small sample size would he have gotten different results of different people were involved well we can't exactly replicate it so it's sort of hard to know the study is also a great example of how demand characteristics might influence the study and this term refers to how much of the participants behavior might have been influenced by how they thought the experimenters wanted them to behave either consciously or unconsciously and so it's possible that all of the participants in the study at least on some level we're just acting the way that they thought that Zimbardo wanted them to act the study is also one that could have been greatly affected by selection bias really here more than most studies because there was no deception in the study so in some ways the participants all knew exactly what they were signing up for and I have to think what kind of student willingly signs up to be put in a prison either as a guard or a prisoner for two full weeks I can think of a lot of better ways that someone could spend their time and so whenever I think about the study I just have to ask even though they did lots of psychological tests was this really a random sample what do all of these things mean for the experiment are these problems bad enough to discredit its results I personally don't think so and that's because its results line up with other study conformity and obedience that had much stricter methodologies but even so I think it's really important to keep all of these things in mind not just for the Zimbardo study but for any study that we see that seems to have really extreme results