Abuse and Mental Breakdown During Stanford Prison Experiment


This is a sociological analysis of Dr. Philip Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment and an analytical look at his study regarding social influence. The experiment started in 1971 its focus was on the effects of prison life and examine the power dynamic between prisoner and guards. Zimbardo wanted to know if you put ordinary people in a bad place would they triumph or become corrupt due to prison life. He began by putting an add on the paper for volunteers who would be paid $15 a day to participate.

After extensive interviews, 24 people were selected for the experiment.

Shortly after Zimbardo and his staff converted the basement of the Stanford Psychology department into a makeshift prison and randomly elected who would be prisoners or guards, a decision that proved to be significant in the demonstration of social influence. The experiment was supposed to run for two weeks but only lasted 6 days. The study demonstrated the power of situations and the structures to stun good intents or participants and to conform every day, normal people into inhuman guards and for those playing the prisoners to have emotional breakdowns.

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I will look to identify the experiments major factors of social change and examining its outcome critically and examine the strategies used to simulate results.

Media Analysis: The Stanford Prison Experiment


The effects of social influence have been well documented, especially under the guise of conventionalism. In many ways, social influence can be conforming to us because we believe that others may have accurate information, or we simply conform to fit in or be liked by our peers.

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Basically, people are motivated to have an accurate perception of reality while others are motivated to be socially accepted and belong to a group. Conformity can happen due to many aspects, such as the influence of the media, our family, and advertisements. Facing ridicule and the need to feel socially accepted is one of the driving factors of conformity. Forcing social change using unorthodox methods to break the will of a group can be interesting but also dangerous if not properly examined. Another way to conform groups of people is by inflicting trauma tactics which are designing to create distress. Those who are exposed to this treatment can be controlled easier as they are desensitized due to constant tactics to strip away the identity of the inmates and breaking there will, whether morally or immorally


Zimbardo's study was evolved around trying to figure out how conformity through compliance can result in people behaving in a manner that contradicts how they would act naturally and psychologically. We can't assume that bad people will do bad things as that is not always the case in certain situations that would compel normal people to act in deviant ways. The people that participated in this experiment were considered normal based on the screening that was involved during the beginning stages. The main idea of this study was to look at how social norms and social rules might influence the behaviors of the role-playing participates. Zimbardo created an environment that would demand social change and wanted to make this experiment as real as possible for both the prisoners and guards. He made the guards wear military uniforms including sunglasses and armed with what looked like wooden clubs. The cruelness and meaning behind the sunglasses were to not see the eyes, which would play a role in the distinction between guard and inmate psychologically.

Although it was almost certain that to create social change in a prison environment it would need to happen by breaking the will of the inmates, a process known by Zimbardo as the degradation process. There is a lot more to it than that because while the scene of the study is really alarming the particulars of the study are even more concerning.


The participants were arrested at random by real police officers. They were booked, fingerprinted and photographed before being transferred to their mock prison blindfolded so not to reveal the prison's location, which was on campus in the basement of the Psychology building. They were stripped and given uniforms that resembled a dress to take away their manhood and individuality. They were given numbers instead of names and were treated as unethically from the start. One of the guards in the film seemed to have been the instigator and realized that he was hired to perform a job for a study and the results of the study were his and the remaining guard's responsibility to develop.

The pressure to deliver motivated the guards who set the tone by the end of the first day as evident from the rebellion experience by the guards by inmates the next day. The inmates rebelled against the degrading mistreatment and coercion by the guards, although most were mental abuse it's realistic to say that there may have been occasions where physicality was used, an example of this would be when inmates were moved to solitary (the hole) for bad conduct. This rebellion made the guards turn against the prisoners which only intensified the treatment. The hole was the last alternative to conform since physical violence of any kind was not permitted. Because there could be no violence the mental trauma inflicted had to be severe enough to instigate change in behavior.

This is no different in real institutions that are designed to rehabilitate those that need social change but must be the social change that would help them one day contribute to society in a civilized manner. After a few days, some of the inmates tried to excuse themselves from the experiment but were convinced to stay. To one inmate who was the ring leader at the time, it was a clear sign that they were not going to let the participates leave that easily, which really got tensions up in the prison. Rumors of a prison revolt were known and taken seriously enough that they moved the prisoners temporarily until it was obvious that it was a bluff, but this only intensified the conflict between guards and inmates when they settled back into its original setting.


Christina Maslach, who was a professor at Stanford was invited to analyze the experiment and was shocked at what was taking place. She told Zimbardo that what he was doing was morally wrong and that he basically needed to stop. Zimbardo, perhaps realizing that he was too tangled in his own experiment, called off the experiment. The study, designed to be two weeks long, was cut short at day six because of the lead experimenter, Dr. Philip Zimbardo, finally realized how out of hand it had gotten. Prisoners were verbally abused by the guards, placed them in solitary, strip searched and deprived them of sleep. The guards acted in cynical, malevolent and dehumanizing ways.


Zimbardo famously concluded that behaviors are driven much more by the situations we are placed in, rather than by our individual traits. There are some reasons why this study may not be conclusive regarding social change through conformity. Besides playing the role of experimental design, Zimbardo was an active participant shaping the outcome of the trial as the prison superintendent or warden. I would have to believe that for a study to be non-bias is for the designer to have little to no influence in matters pertaining to the experiment. But the behavior of the guards was not the result of the power dynamics, but possibly by the explicit instructions of Zimbardo himself. He said physical abuse was off the table, but it was clear by the guard's actions that frustration, boredom, and fear were all reasonable methods of prisoner control.

In short, he was aggressively trying to create a situation in which the guards dominated the prisoners rather than letting things happen naturally. Some ethical issues raised by this experiment would be the degree of humiliation and distress experienced by the prisoners; the prisoners were not protected from psychological and physical harm and the lack of informed consent. I do not think that this experiment could ethically be run today. Obviously, when a person is given a role, they take it seriously and if this were to be conducted today I believe the same thing would happen. It's unfortunate because it discredits similar experiments in the field of psychology because experimenters are influencing the outcomes to fit the results they were hoping to produce.

Works Cited

The Stanford Prison Experiment. (2011). [film].

Updated: Jul 20, 2021
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Abuse and Mental Breakdown During Stanford Prison Experiment. (2019, Aug 20). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/abuse-and-mental-breakdown-during-stanford-prison-experiment-essay

Abuse and Mental Breakdown During Stanford Prison Experiment essay
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