In 1971 a time when people were anti authority, and pro-peace, at Stanford University there was an experiment, which examined the impact of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. Funded by the U.S Navy, The study’s purpose was to investigate the impact of situational variables on human behavior and how the participants would act when placed in a simulation of a prison environment. “What happens when you put good people in an evil place?” (Zimbardo, 2007). A mock prison was set up in the universities basement. Out of 70 volunteers 24 were chosen from the universities student population and were offered $15 per day for being part of the study. The question now was “Would their goodness triumph?”
The requirements for the experiment were that they had to be healthy, have no psychological history, no criminal background and no major medical conditions. The prison was 6×9 ft. and each cell held three people. There were other rooms for the prison guards and even a solitary confinement room (the hole). The roles were randomly assigned to the job of being either a guard or a prisoner by the flip of a coin. If you were assigned to the prisoner role you had to remain in the location for 24 hours. If you were a guard, you got to go home after your shift. “The guards were outfitted in a uniform of khaki shirt and pants, a whistle, a police nightstick, and reflecting sunglasses, and the prisoners were outfitted with a loose-fitting smock with an identification number stamped on it, rubber sandals, a cap made from nylon stocking and a locked chain attached to one ankle”(Aronson, 2007).
Local police, in agreement with Zimbardo for the purpose of the experiment, took the prisoners from their homes. They were then blindfolded brought in to “Stanford County Jail”. Greeted by a warden, they were then explained the seriousness of their offense. Search and stripped, and once again blindfolded, the “prison guards” continued to humiliate the “prisoners” and tell them they had lice.
The psychology of power was tested in this experiment. “Being a guard carried with it a social status within the prison, a group identity (when wearing the uniform), and above all, the freedom to exercise an unprecedented degree of control over the lives of other human beings. This control was invariably expressed in terms of sanctions, punishment, demands, and with the threat of manifest physical power. There was no need for the guards to rationally justify a requested as they did in their ordinary life, and merely to make a demand was sufficient to have it carried out.”(Balfour, 2004)
The experiment was originally meant to last 14 days, but due to its harsh conditions it had to be stopped at 6 days. Although the prisoners and the guards were allowed to interact in any way that they wanted, the interactions were hostile and inhumane. The guards were socially influenced to feel authoritarian. There were signs of abuse, and anxiety among the members of the study. The prisoners become helpless and depressed and anxious. Some even demonstrating negative emotions such as crying and anxiety. Both groups began to conform whether by compliance or obedience.
The next day the prisoners rebelled then influencing the guards to fight power with power. The level of abuse aggression and violence got more extreme. The guards the changed and became more dominant. The power of the institution then influenced the guards to create their own rules and punishments. In 5 days 5 of the prisoners were released. The ones that didn’t break down became mindlessly obedient. One of the guards even used the example of being a puppeteer.
Zimbardo’s role was not only as the warden, but he was supposed to make sure that the situation did not get out of control. He even felt like he was caught up, and was losing sight of the situation and was overlooking the behavior of the prison guards. The experiment was continued until a graduate student voiced objections about the lack of moral in continuing the experiment. According to Zimbardo’s book “Only a few people were able to resist the situational temptations to yield to power and dominance while maintaining some semblance of morality and decency; obviously I was not among that noble class”(Zimbardo, 2007). The prisoners internalized their roles. They did not quit even if it would mean forfeiting their pay. They internalized their prisoner identity.
“According to Zimbardo and his colleagues, the Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrates a powerful role that the situation can play in human behavior. Because the guards were placed in a position of power, they began to behave in ways they would not normally act in their everyday lives or situations. The prisoners, placed in a situation where they had no real control, became passive and depressed.”
Although this experiment has been criticized, and deemed unethical it has taught a valuable lesson in the world of social psychology and in understanding how situations can influence behavior. It has also influenced several Hollywood movies and documentaries including the German movie Das Experiment, and the 2010 film The Experiment.
In the movie the experiment the storyline is very similar to the actual experiment. Subjects are chosen at random from a newspaper ad offering that offers pay of $1,000 a day for two weeks to be part of a medical experiment. Separated into two groups there are Inmates and guards, they are asked to play their roles. Inmates are to follow directions and be obedient and guards are not to use violence. The outcome of “The Experiment” in the Hollywood version was a bit exaggerated. Understanding that the rape and the erection Forest Whitaker had while having a power trip were for dramatic effect. The use of power was self-aggrandizing and self-perpetuating. Forest Whitaker played the silent religious man, who is given the position of power and then alternates into becoming a lunatic and developing genuine sadistic tendencies. I think that both the actual experiment and the movie itself teach us a valuable lesson. What is important is the power of the situation. The experiment favors situational attribution of behavior. The situation caused the participants behavior not their personality.