The Stanford Prison experiment allegedly turned humans into monsters due to its rigorous process. In October 2004, Staff Sergeant Ivan “Chip” Frederick of the United States Army was going through a difficult time. He was one of the defendants in the infamous torture scandal that emerged from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in March of that year, and his court-martial saw alarming information regarding prisoner abuse, sleep deprivation, and sexual humiliation exposed.
One of the witnesses Frederick called to defend himself — and arguably one of the reasons he received only eight years for his crimes was Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who argued that Frederick’s actions were not necessarily a reflection of his character, but rather a reaction to the Abu Ghraib environment that the higher-ups had allowed to develop.
Zimbardo emphasized that, under the right circumstances, practically anyone might be forced to commit some of the acts of which Frederick was accused: beating naked inmates, defiling their holy artifacts, and compelling them to masturbate with hoods over their heads.
Frederick’s actions, Zimbardo contended, were an expected result of his assignment, not the singular deeds of a “bad apple,” as the Army had previously attempted to transfer blame to specific individuals.
Zimbardo was qualified to speak on the subject of prisoner abuse at the court-martial because he had once been a victim of it. He had served as the “warden” of a mock prison in the basement of Stanford University’s Jordan Hall for six days, from August 14 to 20, 1971.
To gain a better understanding of the interactions between prisoners and their guards — a project funded by the United States Navy and Marine Corps — Zimbardo devised a psychological experiment in which two dozen otherwise normal young men were randomly assigned to the role of prisoner or guard for a two-week role-playing exercise.
The Stanford prison experiment devolved into a conflict between suffering inmates and manipulative, sadistic guards who delighted in tormenting them under Zimbardo’s watch.
The findings were published and extensively disseminated, establishing Zimbardo as a household name in his field and exposing something extremely alarming about how little it sometimes takes to transform people into monsters.
The Begining Of The Stanford Prison Experiment
In 1961, a decade before the Stanford jail experiment, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment to determine whether some people are willing to administer electric shocks to strangers.
The Milgram experiment, as it became known, demonstrated that it is disturbingly easy for certain young men to convince another person to commit suicide by startling them (which they were led to believe they may have done, although no subjects were actually harmed).
This experiment paved the door for additional research on situational behavior and the premise that we are only as nice or bad as our circumstances permit. Philip Zimbardo was not there for the Milgram experiment, but he had studied psychology at Yale until 1960 and was ready to take Milgram’s work a step further at Stanford in 1971.
That is when the United States Office of Naval Research commissioned him to conduct research on the psychology of confinement and power dynamics between guards and their captives. Zimbardo immediately accepted the grant and began work on the Stanford jail experiment.
The experiment was conducted in the basement of Jordan Hall on the Stanford campus. Zimbardo used inside partitions to create four “prison cells,” as well as a “warden’s office” and numerous common areas for the guards’ amusement. Additionally, there was a little broom closet, which will become significant later.
Zimbardo recruited people for his experiment by placing an advertisement in the Stanford Daily seeking “male students” to engage in a “psychological study of jail life.” The advertisement guaranteed daily remuneration of $15.
When individuals applied for the experiment, Zimbardo meticulously vetted them to exclude any undesirables. Anyone having a criminal record, regardless of the severity, was disqualified, as were candidates with a history of psychological abnormalities or behavioral difficulties.
Zimbardo ended up with 24 healthy college-aged men who showed no evident tendency for violence or other unpleasant behaviors. Volunteers were randomly assigned to the prisoner or guard group prior to the start of the Stanford jail experiment.
The night before the experiment, Zimbardo organized an orientation session for his twelve guards. He provided them with unambiguous instructions regarding their tasks and limitations: To ensure that inmates are supervised 24 hours a day, guards would be divided into three eight-hour shifts.
They were given surplus military khakis, mirrored sunglasses, and wooden batons as a symbol of power. All guards were advised not to strike or physically mistreat the convicts, yet they were granted significant discretion in how they treated the 12 prisoners under their control.
The following day, Palo Alto Police Department officers came to the selected detainees’ residences and arrested them. The 12 males were put into the county jail and subjected to a search, fingerprinting, and mugshot.
They were eventually driven to Stanford’s campus and escorted into the basement, where guards awaited them. Prisoners were issued misshapen smocks and instructed to wear big stocking caps. Each was wearing a little length of chain around his ankle to emphasize his status as a prisoner. They were grouped in threes and given a lesson on the regulations.
Every angle had been considered to make the prisoners feel submissive to the guards, down to the big numbers stitched onto their smocks; guards had been instructed to address inmates solely by these numbers, rather than by their names.
By the conclusion of the first day of the Stanford jail experiment, both sides had accepted the rules completely and began acting toward one another as if their extreme power dynamic had always existed.
Revolt of the Prisoners
Though both sides had internalized their roles and several inmates complained about the boredom and arbitrariness of their guards’ instructions, the first day of the Stanford jail experiment passed somewhat uneventfully.
Prisoners were occasionally dragged from their cells and searched, despite the fact that they couldn’t reasonably have been carrying contraband that early in the trial. Generally, the guards were impolite and condescending.
They frequently insisted on captives repeating their numbers to emphasize their deplorable status. Menial duties were set, and punishments were applied, such as being required to maintain stress positions for extended periods of time.
By that first night, the guards had chosen to punish disobedient detainees by removing their mattresses and forcing them to sleep on the freezing floor. Additionally, they disrupted the inmates’ sleep by being loud in the common area near the cells.
By noon on day two, a prisoner holding number 8612 was exhibiting signs of collapse. He began screaming and raging, and Zimbardo was forced to intervene to regain control of the situation. Due to the prisoner’s refusal to calm down, it was decided to release him from the study for his own good.
This was accomplished through a “parole hearing” and a lengthy stint in the broom closet, which doubled as a solitary confinement facility. The release procedure was designed to be lengthy and arduous in order to reinforce the image that the jail was an all-powerful institution with powerless convicts.
Keep in mind that this was an entirely voluntary activity, and that — in theory, at least — everyone was free to leave whenever they pleased.
While prisoner #8612 was being processed out, the remaining 11 inmates were in a state of panic. The guards’ arbitrariness and cruelty had previously prompted convicts to refuse to heed commands or leave their cells. When their numbers were called, they declined to answer.
In one cell, inmates created a barricade by placing a mattress against the door. By that evening, conditions had deteriorated to the point where those guards who were eligible to return home at the end of their shift volunteered to work overtime and put an end to the mutiny.
After the clinical staff who were witnessing the experiment left for home, the guards still on duty used to hit convicts with a fire extinguisher and transfer them to other cells in order to enhance crowding. The vacant cell was designated for “good” detainees who had abstained from the insurrection. On the other hand, suspected ringleaders were held in solitary confinement for hours.
Prisoners in standard cells were denied access to the bathroom and instead provided with buckets to discharge themselves in. The buckets were then left unattended in the cell for the duration of the night. The following day, guards compelled detainees to stand intense positions for hours at a time without their clothes on.
Dark sides of the Experiment
By day three of the Stanford prison experiment, the experiment was unraveling pretty fast. According to Zimbardo, around one-third of the guards spontaneously showed evidence of true sadism, constantly creating new types of punishment and encouraging the other guards to execute these punishments on the hapless captives.
Both guards and inmates — who, recall, had been given their roles randomly only a few days previously — began identifying with their side and acting jointly. After a few days, the majority of convicts staged a hunger strike to protest their living circumstances, while guards worked extra shifts for free and became increasingly anxious.
When rumors began to circulate that prisoner #8612 would return with a small army of followers to stage a jailbreak, none other than Zimbardo directed that the basement prison be dismantled and relocated upstairs while he waited alone in the basement for the attackers. He later stated that if the man did appear, he intended to inform him that the experiment had been discontinued and to send him home.
Zimbardo had been completely immersed in the experiment by this stage. As he later conceded, maintaining objectivity in his capacity as jail administrator was never going to be possible, and he, therefore, became entangled in the fantasy world he had built for his test subjects. Zimbardo discovered himself getting morbidly fascinated with the experiment’s progress and the fresh changes that each day brought.
By day four, when certain inmates began to exhibit suicidal tendencies and appeared to be losing their grasp on reality, Zimbardo deemed the scenario interesting enough to call in his fiancée, a psychology graduate student herself. Christina Maslach, 26, was disgusted by what she saw and expressed her shock.
Historically, whenever a new individual was brought in from the outside — such as prisoner #416, who took the place of #8612 — a time of normalization occurred.
But #416’s objections to his treatment got him locked up in solitary, where the guards would torment him by pounding on the door with their hands in shifts. By the time he got out of the solitary confinement closet, prisoner #416 had been sufficiently broken as to accept the routine of prison life as normal.
Maslach, on the other hand, couldn’t be locked up or broken in that way, and her fresh perspective on what was going on shocked her boyfriend into seeing his nightmare through her eyes. So it was that on day six of the Stanford prison experiment, Dr. Zimbardo announced its termination — much to the dismay of his guards, who had grown to quite like the power they had been abusing all week.
Afterward, everybody was still unhinged enough that it took a full day to “parole” the remaining inmates, though again the experiment was over and they weren’t being paid anymore; they could have just left.
Legacy Of The Stanford Prison Experiment
The Stanford jail experiment quickly established itself as a benchmark for human psychology and power dynamics. Perhaps the most astounding discovery was that the subjects assimilated their roles so fully that they appeared to have forgotten they had lives outside of prison.
Guards acted with extraordinary cruelty, as though they would never face consequences for their conduct, while detainees tolerated horrific violations of their human rights without, for the most part, requesting their release. Perhaps more disturbingly, numerous researchers and graduate students had travelled through the basement during the Stanford prison experiment, saw the men’s confined circumstances, and remained silent.
Zimbardo later estimated that possibly 50 individuals witnessed what occurred in his subterranean prison, and his girlfriend was the only one who objected. Zimbardo’s results gained instant importance when, less than two weeks after the Stanford prison experiment concluded, inmates at the legendary San Quentin and Attica prisons staged violent revolts strikingly identical to those staged on day two of the Stanford experiment.
Zimbardo was summoned by the House Judiciary Committee to testify about prison circumstances and their impact on human behaviour. Zimbardo’s stance had always been that external circumstances, not an individual’s nature, dictate how people react to stress.
Due in part to Zimbardo’s study, the United States decided to separate juvenile and adult criminals and to implement stronger rules and protections for prison inmates who wish to bring a lawsuit challenging their conditions. However, the Stanford jail experiment, like the previous Milgram experiment, has far-reaching consequences for prison administration.
In both the experiments, seemingly normal, healthy human beings were induced to commit heinous crimes against other members of their group with minimal pressure and only a little encouragement. In all examples, the decisions made by individuals would have been unimaginable if they were operating independently, implying that reactions can be influenced by the immediate environment at the time of decision-making.
This raises doubt on society’s differences between criminals and law-abiding citizens, while also implying some unsettling possibilities regarding the perpetrators of humanity’s biggest crimes.
Nazi death squad members, for example, famously contended that they had no personal vendetta against anyone and were simply carrying out orders; if they had been told to do anything other than shooting thousands of civilians, they would have complied.
Although these men’s postwar trials rejected this defense, Zimbardo’s research suggests that it could have been an excellent one; worse, it could be the excuse that any normal person uses when a dictator or other autocrat issues them with khakis and eyeglasses, hands them a baton, and instructs them to control the prisoners in their cells — as appears to have occurred at Abu Ghraib and probably many other locations that went unreported.
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