The Stanford Prison Experiment: Summary
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Politics and Activism

The Stanford Prison Experiment: Summary

A controversial psychological experiment teaches you things about people you may not have known before.

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The Stanford Prison Experiment: Summary

With a recent addition of movies and shows onto Netflix, comes the award-winning film based on the controversial Stanford Prison Experiment. This experiment started off with the best of scientific intentions, to find out whether personality traits of prisoners and guards affected their lives in prison, but went wrong after the participants lost their identities and fell deep into the roles they were given.

Mid August 1971, Phillip Zimbardo, professor of psychology at Stanford University, is preparing for 24 college aged males to arrive and begin participating in a one to two-week paid study on the behaviors of prisoners and guards. Zimbardo and his team sectioned off part of the basement of the psychology building at Stanford to be the prison by closing off a few entrances and setting up "cells" with small beds for the prisoners, and a separate area meant for the guards with more luxury comforts. The students, who were equal in all pre-experiment screenings, were randomly assigned either "prisoner" or "guard" resulting in nine prisoners, nine guards, and three alternates of each. Both groups were briefed on the guidelines of the experiment, how the guards were to focus on the power aspect and deindividualization of the prisoners, not withholding food or resulting to physical abuse.

The first day of the experiment started off slow and uneventful, but by the second day, things started to get heated. The prisoners began rebelling and refusing to follow the guards' rules. The guards retaliated with providing special treatment to prisoners who did not participate in the "rebellion." One prisoner actually had a psychological breakdown and was excused from the experiment. A rumor started that the "escaped prisoner" was coming back to free the others, and with that, the guards tightened their reins. After a few more days, solitary confinement was introduced by the guards, which in fact was a small, dark closet, where a prisoner would go to and have to endure the other prisoners banging on the door and screaming at them.

After only six days the experiment was shut down, influenced by Professor Zimbardo's girlfriend who said the whole experiment became immoral. The men in the "prison" took their roles too seriously, to the extent that the prisoners were willing to accept "parole" to leave the experiment and continue to be paid. The guards ended up feeling the need to prove their authority even when they weren't being watched, and the prisoners accepted their lower status and changed the way they acted around the guards.

This experiment, now considered unethical, is highly regarded in the psychological field. It shows that authority is powerful to a fault. People will do most anything to either please or undermine authority figures, and those in authority positions will go to great lengths to prove their power. It's easy to fall into either of these categories in everyday life. Have you ever been in a leadership position at school or work and realized you were taking it too seriously? Have you ever been pushed to do things you may not have wanted to, simply because someone of authority asked you to? If you are more interested in the mechanics and results of this experiment, check out the film on Netflix.

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