Prison Experiment

In 1973, Zimbardo and his colleagues were interested in finding out the truth behind brutality among guards in American prisons due to the dispositional personalities of the guard, which were based purely on the prison environment. According to Zimbardo and his colleagues, prisoners and guards have different personalities, due to which conflicts in prison are evitable. With the prisoners often lacking respect for law and order, the guards had no choice but to be aggressive and domineering.

Philip Zimbardo believed that the conflict arose mainly due to the social and environmental situation they were subjected to rather than their personalities.

The procedure of Philip Zimbardo’s prison experiment

Philip Zimbardo believed in experimenting by studying and analyzing the reason for their behavior. Hence, with the help of his colleagues and the university, he turned the base of Stanford University into a mock prison. University students volunteered to take part in the experiment after running advertisements for the same.

Around 75 participants were interviewed and tested to eliminate anyone with psychological problems, a history of crime and drug abuse, and people with mental disabilities. After the screening test, 24 men were selected to participate in the experiment and were paid $15 per day. Participants were randomly assigned the role of prisoners and guards, out of which two were reserves, and one dropped out, leaving ten prisoners and 11 guards in the mock prison.

The prisoners were arrested and taken to a local police station, where they were booked, photographed, and fingerprinted. Then, they were blindfolded and taken to the mock prison, filled with barred doors and windows, small cells and walls, which looked like a real prison. He also gave ID numbers to the prisoners to make them feel anonymous.

prison experiment

All guards had khaki uniforms and carried a whistle around their necks. In addition, they wore special glasses to prevent eye contact with the prisoners. The guards were instructed to do whatever was necessary and take action to maintain law and order. However, no physical violence was permitted under any circumstance.

Assertion of authority

With hours of assigning duties, Zimbardo’s experiment started taking shape when both prisons and guards were deeply involved in their characters. The prisoners were often taunted and given petty, pointless, and mean orders. The second day started with a rebellion among prisoners and guards, and they also used fire extinguishers to punish them. Over the days, the guards gained complete control over the prisoners by imposing strict punishments.

In less than 36 hours of the experience, prisoner #8612 started suffering from disorganized thinking and emotional disturbance, making Philip Zimbardo and the team realize they had to let him out.

Results of the experiment

Philip Zimbardo and the team intended to experiment for two weeks but were terminated after the sixth day due to the prisoners’ extreme emotional breakdowns and the guards’ aggression. Philip Zimbardo also admitted that during the experiment, he assumed the role of prison superintendent rather than a social research psychologist, which proved his theory on how people readily accept the unique roles they are expected to play. Therefore, the experiment successfully proved people behave based on situational explanation rather than their personalities.