The Stanford Prison Experiment: What Actually Happened?

By: Isabella S.

When movie trailers say “based on a true story” everyone knows this is only to a certain extent. Hollywood has a habit of exaggerating facts and bending reality to make a more exciting story. So, in light of the recently released “based on a true story” movie The Stanford Prison experiment here is what actually happened during one of the most controversial studies in the history of social psychology.

The experiment was conducted in the basement of the Stanford University’s Psychology Department, which was aptly transformed into a mock prison. Out of 75 volunteers, 21 males were selected because of their seeming stability and by the flip of a coin their fate was decided between prisoner and guard. The study, led by Professor Zimbardo, aimed to study the tendencies of people assigned with the power to oppress and the response of the oppressed.

The experiment exceeded expectations with the participants adapting vigorously to their assigned role. However, within the first 24 hours, some of the guards began humiliating and physiologically torturing the prisoners, the latter, on the most part, became passive and protested little to the abuse. Some actions that the guards took include: only letting prisoners defecate in a bucket in their cell and not allow them to empty it, taking away the prisoner’s mattress, forcing the prisoners to be naked, and forcing prisoners to repeat their assigned numbers for them to know their new identity. The experiment got so out of hand that it ended after only 6 days and not the planned 2 weeks.

So what does this mean about human behaviour? If we take a look at real life prison tragedies such as the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, there are direct links in the behavior of the guards and prisoners. The participants of the experiment were purposely chosen for their mental stability and some of the guards turned abusive, does this mean then that humans all have a tendency to be abusive which is normally suppressed by social conventions? Many take from the experiment the exposure of how easily regular people with a normal mental state can transform into full on oppressors if “social conventions” disappear. Meaning, if there are no consequences or judgments to their actions and if they are in a situation of power in which they could oppress, they do so. It concludes to the idea of how human behaviour is shaped by context.

        However, the experiment has become a kind of popular myth in the sense that most people believe that what happened resembled the events in Abu Ghraib, most guards turning aggressive and oppressive. This was not the case in the experiment: Zimbardo stated that only one third, four guards, turned tyrannical. This has been forgotten by society and popular culture has shaped it into something worse than it was, and yet it still haunts and perplexes psychologists to this day as to why those four turned oppressive. Why not the others? Why them? What about their role of power turned them this way? As Zimbardo himself concludes about the experiment “the experience of imprisonment undid, although temporarily, a lifetime of learning; human values were suspended, self-concepts were challenged, and the ugliest, most base, pathological side of human nature surfaced.”


One comment

  1. I’ve heard of this experiment before and your article on it is very interesting. I’ll be interested to see if you make other articles like this.


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