The Stanford prison experiment ,led by professor Philip Zimbardo, was aimed at seeing the effect on people on becoming prisoners or prison guards. The idea was to see what happens to people when they are put in relatively ‘evil’ places. Do the people themselves become evil or is there no net effect? The results indicated that in fact people adapt to their role exceptionally well. It was observed that the prison guards became overly tyrannical to the level of sadism.
In consequence the prisoners were seen to be under severe stress to the extent that they became crazy or depressed. 24 volunteers were selected that had no psychological problems, health issues or any past crime accounts. They were brought to a mock prison set up in the basement of the Stanford university’s psychology building where they were randomly assigned to be prisoners or guards. 3 prisoners each were given rooms that they had to live in for 24 hours of the day and the guards were given 8 hour shifts to work in.
The study was observed upon using cameras and microphones. They study was supposed to last for 14 days but had to be halted after 6 days due to extreme unethical practices in the prison. The Stanford prison experiment showed us that human beings alter to the situation they are put in. The guards won total control over the prisoners who blindly followed orders. All of this in just 5 days of experimental conditions. Zimbardo said that the prisoners had internalised their roles and thus continued to participate in the experiment on their own will.
One example of this is when they introduced themselves to the priest with their serial number rather than their real name. Another example would be of the prison consultant who took on the role of an autocratic head of the parole board. After the experiment was over he was said to be disgusted at the person he had become. In essence there were two groups created among the volunteers, therefore, according to social identity theory ,people in the in-group would exhibit in-group favouritism and a sense of discrimination of the out-group.
This can explain the unanimity between the guards themselves and their certain dislike towards the inmates. To further build on this ,the idea of the prison guards being a group may evoke the feeling of anonymity, which would allow the guards to be more free and aggressive as they could shake off responsibility for their actions. This is called deindividuation theory. It may be a cause of the violence occurred on the prisoners by the guards as there is a diffusion of responsibility. The Self-fulfilling prophecy states that when a person is given a label we often live up to that expectation.
In the same way ,as the volunteers were given labels, they tried to live up to that expectation and thus acted in the way they thought they should. Furthermore it can be said that the volunteers had set stereotypes on the idea of a prison guard and prisoner. It can be assumed that these stereotypes illustrated the prison guards to be strong and authoritative. It could also be an illusionary correlation made by them through watching films or through media (which means that they attribute the behaviour of the prison guards to their disposition rather than situation :FAE).
The theory of cognitive dissonance can also be used to understand why the prisoners and guards acted this way. They had to alter their mind-set(attitudes) to match with their behaviours so that there was no tension in their self identity. The situation put the prisoners in certain set roles that they tried to live up to and thus they changed their behaviour. This experiment along with Milligram’s shock experiment demonstrates the fundamental attribution error which says that there is a overestimation of dispositional factors and under-estimation of situational factors when we attribute.
It changed the way we looked at psychology in a socio-cultural aspect. This experiment has helped us understand how good people do bad things such as the torture of Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Gharib prison, which was a real life example of the same results obtained by Zimabardo. It was also used to investigate matters such as prison riots and abuse of juveniles in many prisons. Young adults are also known to be power hungry. Their lust for power might have changed the way they would have normally behaved. The prisoners were made powerless and thus started to behave in such a way.
They became depressed ,helpless and unstable. Thus it can be said that power also affected their behaviour. In relation to gender I believe that there would not have been much difference in the experiment as people, male or female, tend to have similar schematic processing when it comes to social perceptions of a certain group or individuals. If conducted with only females it is more likely that there would have been lesser violence as it has been researched that testosterone, which is much more predominating in males, is a cause of sexual arousal and aggression.
Culture would not affect the behaviour as everybody needs some power in their life and if power is stolen from us we tend to become unstable. Lastly, it can be argued that all the volunteers of the experiment were college students. These students are more likely to be aggressive, as they would have higher testosterone levels compared to older guards in regular prisons. The volunteers were mostly white males who were on average ,financially stable, which when compared to regular prisoners would not equate well as people in prisons are usually financially unstable.
It goes without saying that this experiment was extremely unethical. It did harmed the volunteers both physically and mentally as they were put under severe stress as well as physical torture. Their consent forms were not complete as it id not involve the details of the experiment. The volunteers did not know what they were getting themselves into , for example strip searched which is a violation itself. They were also ,without prior knowledge ,arrested.
Zimbardo himself became the super-intendant and did not abide by his role as a psychologist ,which should have been the case to have an unbiased study. The experiment had no controls and thus is therefore severely criticised. Therefore the validity and ethics of this experiment, relating to its method are questioned. In conclusion, the experiment was a path breaking exercise that opened our eyes to show us the vulnerability of our race in terms of conformity and how we adapt to our situations especially when it comes to the fight for power.
Courtney from Study Moose
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