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Zimbardo prison study The Stanford prison experiment
- The last of the three famous studies on conformity and obedience is the Zimbardo Prison Experiment, which is also known as the Stanford Prison Experiment. This study was conducted by Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University in 1971. This experiment, like the other experiments that we've talked about, like the Asch study and the Milgram study, was trying to figure out how conformity and obedience can result in people behaving in ways that are counter to how they would act on their own and even counter to how they think that they would act. And as before, the answer is complicated because it will be assumed that only bad people would do bad things, this isn't always the case and certain situations can make otherwise ordinary people behave in extraordinarily terrible ways. The original goal of this study was to look at how social norms and social conventions might influence the behaviors of participants who are playing the roles of prisoners and guards. If you've ever talked about this study in your psychology class, you probably know the basic summary of it, that the students who are randomly assigned to be either prisoners or guards eventually got so caught up in their roles that the study needed to be stopped early but there's a lot more to it than that because while the premise of the study is really disturbing, the details of the study are even more so. Let me state, right out front, that these participants knew all about the study. There was no deception here. I also want to note that the people who participated were the very definition of normal. They were recruited by newspaper ads and they were tested to make sure that they didn't have any kind of medical or physical or psychological problems. They all had similar backgrounds, they were middle-class students. In the end, 18 students participated and they were randomly assigned with a coin flip to be either guards or prisoners and, importantly, the participants all knew that this assignment was random. Zimbardo wanted to make this prison experiment as real as possible for both the prisoners and the guards so he actually had the participants in the prisoner condition arrested at unexpected times on what, to them, was a completely random day. I don't mean that it was a fake arrest like with students in fake police hats putting them in the back of their friend's car, I mean actual, real arrests by the Palo Alto Police Department, who arrested them and handcuffed them and fingerprinted them, booked them, took a mugshot and put them in an ill-fitting prison uniform. After this, they were brought to the mock prison, which was actually in the basement of the Stanford Psychology building. Each prisoner was given a number that they were supposed to be referred to instead of their name and they were given ankle chains to remind them of their prisoner status, and they were put in mock cells. They had mattresses in them but there weren't any things like windows and there weren't any clocks and the idea behind that decision was to try to separate these prisoners from the outside world, to at least simulate a prison environment. Zimbardo had also met with the participants playing the guards before the start of the experiment and he had told them that they were not supposed to physically harm the prisoners. They could, however, try to create a situation that would lead to fear or loss of privacy and control or loss of individuality. The guards were also given uniforms and they were given batons, which were supposed to be for threats of physical violence and not actual physical violence and also mirrored sunglasses. They were instructed to refer to the prisoners by their numbers and not by their names. Basically, these guards were basically free to do whatever was necessary in order to maintain law and order except for physically harm the participants. So what happened? Well, the first day of the study was pretty uneventful. The prisoners really didn't seem to take it all that seriously and the guards felt a little bit awkward giving them orders and so nothing really happened but then the participants who were the prisoners started to get pretty tired of their situation and so they started to rebel against the guards. Specifically, some of them barricaded themselves in their cell. At this point, the guards had to decide what to do next. Were they just going to let this go or were they going to try to gain control over the situation? In the end, the guards saw this behavior as an affront to their authority, their fake authority, and they began to fight back. In response to this, the prisoners tore off their numbers and they cursed at the guards and, at some point, it isn't clear exactly when, the guards started to see the other participants as actual dangerous prisoners that needed controlling. In response to what they saw was a threat from these prisoners, they used fire extinguishers on them and forced them to strip down. In the end, the guards did regain some control and the prisoners who rebelled were put in a closet that was being used as solitary confinement, which was big enough to stand but the prisoners couldn't lie down or sit. After only 36 hours, the prisoners started to break down and I mean that pretty literally. One prisoner started showing signs of depression and uncontrollable rage. He screamed and he cried and he yelled obscenities and eventually had to be removed from the experiment. He might have been the first but he wasn't the only one who had a mental breakdown. By the day three, the situation went even further. Some of the participants decided to go on a hunger strike. In response to this, all of the prisoners were forced to repeat their numbers over and over again. They were forcibly made to exercise, things like doing push ups until they were exhausted. Guards started to withhold bathroom privileges, instead making them do their business in buckets and then not allowing the prisoners to empty them. They tried to make them turn on each other. They tried to make them scream at each other. They basically tried to break them down and while all of this was going on, while all of this was happening, while prisoners were stripped naked and put in solitary confinement in a closet, Zimbardo was there. I think that this is important because Zimbardo is not a bad guy but by taking on the role of the prison warden, he involved himself in this situation. I feel like this little tidbit of information has been lost from the narrative of the study because Zimbardo never realized that things had gone wrong. After six days into the experiment, his girlfriend, Christina Mazlach, who is now also a psychology professor but at that time was a graduate student, she came to visit the prison. When she came down to the psychology basement, she was so upset by what she saw, so horrified by it, that she threatened to break up with Zimbardo if he didn't stop the experiment. This act, this outsider who Zimbardo really cared about coming in and telling him that what was going on was wrong, is what caused him to reevaluate the situation. It's what brought him back to reality. In the end, he decided to end the study early. By the time this happened, by day six, half of the prisoners had already been released because of severe emotional breakdowns. None of the guards left the study early.