The Stanford prison experiment

I’ve just been to see Philip Zimbardo talk at the Bristol Festival of Ideas. Zimbardo was the psychologist behind one of the most famous and highly studied experiments ever conducted, The Stanford Prison Experiment.

In honour of him I thought I’d post Malcolm Gladwell‘s summary of the famed experiment from his book The Tipping Point.

“In the early 1970s, a group of social scientists at Stanford University, led by Philip Zimbardo, decided to create a mock prison in the basement of the university’s psychology building. They took a thirty-five-foot section of corridor and created a cell block with a prefabricated wall. Three small, six- by nine-foot cells were created from laboratory rooms and given steel-barred, black-painted doors. A closet was turned into a solitary confinement cell. The group then advertised in the local papers for volunteers, men who would agree to participate in the experiment. Seventy-five people applied, and from those Zimbardo and his colleagues picked the 21 who appeared the most normal and healthy on psychological tests. Half of the group were chosen, at random, to be guards, and were given uniforms and dark glasses and told that their responsibility was to keep order in the prison. The other half were told that they were to be prisoners. Zimbardo got the Palo Alto Police Department to “arrest” the prisoners in their homes, cuff them, bring them to the station house, charge them with a fictitious crime, fingerprint them, then blindfold them and bring them to the prison in the Psychology Department basement. Then they were stripped and given a prison uniform to wear, with a number on the front and back that was to serve as their only means of identification for the duration of their incarceration.

The purpose of the experiment was to try to find out why prisons are such nasty places. Was it because prisons are full of nasty people, or was it because prisons are such nasty environments that they make people nasty?”

Later Gladwell continues,

“What Zimbardo found out shocked him. The guards, some of whom had previously identified themselves as pacifists, fell quickly into the role of hard-bitten disciplinarians. The first night they woke up the prisoners at two in the morning and made them do pushups, line up against the wall, and perform other arbitrary tasks. On the morning of the second day, the prisoners rebelled. They ripped off their numbers and barricaded themselves in their cells. The guards responded by stripping them, spraying them with fire extinguishers, and throwing the leader of the rebellion into solitary confinement. “There were times when we were pretty abusive, getting right in their faces and yelling at them,” one guard remembers. “It was part of the whole atmosphere of terror.” As the experiment progressed, the guards got systematically cruder and more sadistic. “What we were unprepared for was the intensity of the change and the speed at which it happened,” Zimbardo says. The guards were making the prisoners say to one another they loved each other, and making them march down the hallway, in handcuffs, with paper bags over their heads. “It was completely the opposite from the way I conduct myself now,” another guard remembers. “I think I was positively creative in terms of my mental cruelty.” After 36 hours, one prisoner began to get hysterical, and had to be released. Four more then had to be released because of “extreme emotional depression, crying, rage, and acute-anxiety.” Zimbardo had originally intended to have the experiment run for two weeks. He called it off after six days. “I realize now,” one prisoner said after the experiment was over, “that no matter how together I thought I was inside my head, my prisoner behavior was often less under my control than I realized.” Another said: “I began to feel that I was losing my identity, that the person I call—, the person who volunteered to get me into this prison (because it was a prison to me, it still is a prison to me, I don’t regard it as an experiment or a simulation …) was distant from me, was remote, until finally I wasn’t that person. I was 416. I was really my number and 416 was really going to have to decide what to do.”

Hey. I’m Alex Murrell. I'm a Planner at Epoch Design in Bristol where I help deliver highly creative, innovative and effective pack, instore and online communications for some of the world’s biggest FMCG brands. Want to know more? You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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