The Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment

Lori Belmont, Staff Writer

Professor Philip G. Zimbardo conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment in one of the basements at Stanford by building a fake prison and seeing how normal, everyday people act in the “prison” on August 14, 1971, to August 20, 1971, to figure out why the prison system was failing. This experiment is known as one of the most famous experiments in the history of human psychology, but also one of the most terrifying. 

This experiment was conducted by Professor Philip G. Zimbardo, who worked at Stanford University. Zimbardo and his colleagues built a fake prison block in one of the basements at Stanford which consisted of three small cells, a narrow hallway, and a closet designed for solitary confinement. The point of this experiment was to find out why the prison system was failing. To find the participants, Zimbardo put a short ad in the newspaper, “MALE students needed to participate in the psychological study of prison life. Fifteen dollars per day for 1-2 weeks, beginning Aug. 14. Further information and applications may be obtained in rm-248 Jordan Hall.” Over 70 students applied for this experiment and out of those Zimbardo chose the 24 students with the best physical and mental health. He randomly picked half to be prison guards and half to be prisoners. The prisoners were each given a number they had to go by while they were participating in the experiment. Out of these 12 prisoner numbers only one would completely make its mark in history, #8612, the first prisoner to break and only after 36 hours. 

This experiment was supposed to go on for two weeks but ended after six days.

On August 14, 1971, the experiment started. All went smoothly until the prisoners started to rebel only two days after the experiment started. They refused to eat, barricaded themselves in their cells, and started ripping off the numbers stitched onto their prison uniforms. The guards’ response to this was to use fire extinguishers. The prisoners rebelled because of the guards’ treatment. The guards mistreated the prisoners so much that they rebelled after only two days. The prisoners were forced to clean out toilet bowls with their bare hands and do things that were degrading and humiliating. The guards had already become power-hungry.

Zimbardo watched all this happen over security cameras with some of his colleagues. Most of his colleagues couldn’t go on watching this and left the experiment but Zimbardo stayed. Around half of the prisoners had to leave the experiment early which was difficult for Zimbardo to let them do. Zimbardo initially wanted to keep everyone participating as a prisoner in the experiment in the fake prison to make the experiment seem more real but after a while, he started to notice how badly this was affecting the prisoners who were having mental breakdowns after only a few days or in #8612’s case, not even two days. It wasn’t just the guards that caused these mental breakdowns, some of the prisoners were convinced the prison was real. 

A study was recently found by a sociologist named Thibault Le Texier which was published in 2018. Thibault Le Texier went into the archives of the Stanford Prison Experiment to study what really happened and what he found was shocking. The students who played as the guards were being pressured to be as sadistic as possible even though the guards just wanted to play cards and listen to music with the prisoners. David Jaffe, Zimbardo’s co-researcher, was a “warden” in this fake prison and was also pressuring one of the guards to be tough on the inmates.