2023 Stanford Prison Experiment: The Role You Take On
Narrator: The way an individual behaves varies with the social context. Different situations require people play different, sometimes conflicting, roles. These demands can produce responses that may be surprising. They can elicit the best or the worst from people. Dr. Philip Zimbardo is a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. Ass a social psychologist he’s been studying how the roles we play shape our behaviors and attitudes. In 1971 Dr. Zimbardo conducted a classic study on the psychology of imprisonment which has become known as the Stanford Prison Experiment. The results of this experiment serve as a dramatic illustration of how the power of the situation can influence human behavior.
Dr. Zimbardo: So the Stanford Prison Experiment is about to begin. We’re now ready to take in our first prisoners. And they come down here to the basement of the Psychology Department where we constructed our mock prison. We put prison doors on each of three offices with steel bars. This is the yard where all of the action took place. That closet is a small area which is solitary confinement area that prisoners were stuck in for hours or longer and essentially this is our prison. The students who were participants in this study we recruited by putting ads in the local newspapers. “Wanted: Subjects for study on prison life, $15 a day for it for a two week study.” We probably got 100 calls is screened out some, and we ended up interviewing
70 individuals. We gave them in-depth interviews, a battery of five psychological tests, and we ended up taking two dozen of the most normal most healthy students we could find. That is, they had to be at least average on every one and any of these psychological dimensions. And in our interviews that Craig Haney and Curt Banks—they were graduate students then—did the interviews. And they had—their judgment was these are, you know, ordinary normal college students. By a flip of a coin we randomly assigned them to the two experimental conditions: guard versus prisoner. But at the beginning of the study there was no systematic difference between the 12 boys who in the guard position and the 12 boys who were in the prison condition. And that really is a very important distinction. And then we told the boys were going to be prisoners—they didn’t know what condition they were in initially—we told the boys that were going to be prisoners, you know, wait at home and tell us where you’ll be on Saturday and Sunday and we’ll get in touch with you. The boys that were going to be guards, we told them to come down on Saturday, come back on Saturday, because we wanted them to feel it was their prison that the prisoners are coming into. So what we did was out of how we told him a little bit about the
study and then we said before we go on further, let’s all go get uniforms and went to an Army-Navy surplus store and each one picked out his own uniform. Essentially they were, you know, military style uniforms, the khaki uniforms, and they were each given Billy clubs to use that they were supposed to be used symbolically. That is, touching somebody with the club was the equivalent hitting them. They kept forgetting that symbolic thing. And then a critical thing was they wore silver reflecting sunglasses and the idea was this again promoted the deindividuation that you can’t see somebody’s eyes, they lose their humanity. And so when you look at— instead of looking at the person’s eyes, you’re seeing yourself reflected. And then they had whistles that they would blow either to wake up prisoners or stop some problem.
Guard #1: Everybody up. Well, gentlemen, here it is, time for count.
Dr. Zimbardo: Prisoners would often be forced to wake two or three times a night with these blasting whistles in their ears. And what we told the guards simply is this a study on the psychology of imprisonment. They thought we were really interested only in the prisoners, so they didn’t think they were they thought they were really part of the staff. They didn’t really know we were observing them as well. And we said your job simply is to maintain law and order, not to use physical violence. Use symbolic violence. If the prisoners escape then, you know, the study is over.
Narrator: At the beginning of what was planned as a two-week experiment, the basement of the psychology building took on the appearance of a real prison. This simulated environment was created in consultation with people familiar with the real prison environment: Carlo Prescott—a former inmate who had served 17 years for armed robbery—a prison chaplain, a public defender, former guards and others. Prisoners were arrested at their dormitories or residences, searched. read their rights, taken in the custody, and fingerprinted. In other words, they were treated like real criminals. Prisoners were blindfolded when they entered the staging area so they would have no idea where they were. They were given ankle chains, prison smocks, and stocking caps, and assigned numbers to replace their names. They were ordered to refer to the guards as “Mr. Correctional Officer.” These measures were designed to take away their sense of individuality. The guards’ only instruction was to maintain law and order without using physical violence. In short order this led to harsh treatment of the prisoners
as they were routinely rousted out of bed at all hours of the night him, forced to perform meaningless exercises and other humiliating tasks in what became a routine of arbitrary and sadistic harassment. At first the prisoners challenged the authority of the guards and rebelled. The guards reacted by employing both physical and psychological measures to control every aspect of the prisoners lives. Within a few days what began as playing of a role had changed the players. The illusion became reality. Normal, healthy students were transformed into either sadistic guards or passive, pathological prisoners. Role-playing shaped both guards’ and prisoners’ attitudes towards others and themselves. As a result five prisoners were released early due to extreme emotional distress symptoms and the study, which was originally intended to run for two weeks, had to be terminated after only six days. During the course of the experiment, various groups of visitors were invited to look in on the prison. Visitation days were arranged and prisoners were allowed to talk to relatives, friends, a former prison chaplain, and a public defender. Parole hearings were conducted with a mock parole board. Every effort was made to simulate the totality of the prison experience.
Dr. Zimbardo: Anybody who sees the study will say “I would not have done that; I would have been a rebellious prisoner. I would’ve been a good humane guard.” And they’re all wrong because that’s a self-serving bias. We all like to think in any situation described “I wouldn’t have done that. If I was in Nazi Germany and I was an SS guard, I wouldn’t have been cruel to the Jews,” and the reality is, well, how does that explain why virtually all of our prisoners, all of our guards did this. We want to believe that we are good and we maintain that illusion as long as were not in the situation. And so that’s why simply describing a situation, asking people to imagine how they would behave, tells you nothing about the reality. Creating a situation, putting people in and saying, okay now here’s your chance to see. And what you see is the power of the situation, the subtle power that being in a— being a teacher versus a student, being a prisoner versus a guard—the power of rules, an arbitrary thing which says that you can’t do this, you should have to do this at this time and place. The power of uniforms, the power of the physical environment.
Prisoners: Prisoner 819 did a bad thing. Prisoner 819 did a bad thing.
Dr. Zimbardo: The study was clearly unethical in that people suffered. in many cases the guards went beyond symbolic abuse to physical abuse. In
fact, you know, I just noticed on this uniform here are bloodstains, in some cases from being hit with a stick or from the chains. And, you know, I did my best to minimize the violence but I could not be there 24 hours a day and night. In fact, the worst abuses took place late at night when the guards thought or knew I was asleep in the superintendent ‘s office. So the question is who would you want to protect your rights if you’re a prisoner? Well, I would want my mother, or my father, or my brother, or my girlfriend, or a Catholic priest or a public defender or a psychologist, you know, not connected to this, or a secretary. Ordinary people. But they were all there and they did nothing to protect their rights. They did nothing to blow the whistle to tell me, you know, you shouldn’t be doing this, you’re carrying it too far, you should end this. And so again what it was is all of those people got involved in some way in the power of the situation.
Narrator: The power of the situation is illustrated in the real-life experiences of Terry Anderson and Tom Sutherland. From 1985 to 1991, they were hostages in Beirut, Lebanon. Much of the time they were blindfolded and confined in chains of more than 16 different prison locations during the course of their captivity.
Mr. Anderson: The Stanford Experiment was an experiment. We were in real-life and we could see very often where the situation had a power of its own. It exerted an influence over the behavior of the guards. One good example of that power of the situation I can remember in a particularly bad prison bad that we were in in an underground place with individual cells. It was very dirty. It was dark. There was water—it was damp, there was water running down the walls and rats and mice. And when we got there, the guards changed their behavior. They became more aggressive and more violent and angrier for no particular reason. We hadn’t changed our behavior. We had moved from a prison that wasn’t good but it was clean and stable into this very dark, damp, nasty place and they became nastier. There was a lot of abuse, physical abuse, and angry language and threats just because the situation we were in.
Mr. Sutherland: The young guards, when they first appeared, they would treat us more rationally and with more sympathy and they would say things like “You need anything?” One of them even would bring in a cardboard sheet and wafted up and down over his visit was hot in those cells. Same latitude as Atlanta, Georgia, and no ventilation. It was really hot, so he took
pity on us and would waft that on us the first week or two that he appeared. But then later he became probably the most abusive of all of those guards.
Guard in dramatization: You quiet, no word. Quiet. Prisoner in dramatization: Okay.
Mr. Sutherland: They learned from the older guards that this is how you’re supposed to be. You don’t show sympathy to these guys. They’re hostages. They don’t have any rights at all. Just do what you like with them.
Mr. Anderson: And supervision. There was nobody to tell them what they could or couldn’t do, other than obviously they weren’t supposed to kill us, because that would be self-defeating. A dead hostage isn’t any good to anybody. And they were young men. They obviously had little power over their own lives and suddenly they were given all this power over us, their enemy. And they abused it. Of course they did.
Narrator: The Stanford Prison Experiment and the experiences of Terry Anderson and Tom Sutherland illustrate the profound and extensive changes in behavior that can occur under extreme conditions. These examples serve as a reminder that all people, to varying degrees, are affected by their surroundings. Much of human behavior is influenced by the power of the situation. Our attitudes can affect our behavior and our behavior can affect our attitudes.