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Stanford prison experiment
The Stanford prison experiment was a landmark psychological study of the human response to captivity ,
in particular, to the real world circumstances of prison life. It was conducted in 1971 by a team of
researchers led by Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University. Volunteers played the roles of guard and
prisoner, and lived in a mock prison. However, the experiment quickly got out of hand, and was ended
It was a variation of the Milgram experiment, which was conducted in 1963 by Zimbardo’s former high
school friend, Stanley Milgram at Yale University.
Goals and methods
The study was funded by the US Navy to explain conflict in its and the Marine Corps’ prison systems.
Zimbardo and his team intended to test the hypothesis that prison guards and convicts were self-
selecting, of a certain disposition that would naturally lead to poor conditions in that situation.
Participants were recruited via a newspaper ad and offered $15 a day to participate in a two-week “prison
simulation.” Of the 70 respondents, Zimbardo and his team selected 24 whom they deemed to be the
most psychologically stable and healthy. These participants were predominantly white, middle-class
The group was divided in half at random into an equal group of “prisoners” and “guards”. Interestingly,
prisoners later said they thought the guards had been chosen for their larger physical size, but in reality
they had been picked by a fair coin toss and there was no objective difference in stature between the two
The prison itself would be run out of the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department, which had
been converted into a mock jail. An undergraduate research assistant was the “warden” and Zimbardo
Zimbardo set up a number of specific conditions on the participants which he hoped would promote
disorientation , depersonalization and deindividuation.
Guards were given wooden batons and a khaki, military-style uniform they had chosen themselves at a
local army-navy store. They were also given mirrorshade sunglasses to prevent eye contact (Zimbardo
said he got the idea from the movie Cool Hand Luke). Unlike the prisoners, the guards were to work in
shifts and return home during off hours, though at times many would later volunteer for added duty
without additional pay.
Prisoners were to wear only intentionally ill-fitting muslin smocks (without underwear) and rubber thong
sandals, which Zimbardo said would force them to adopt “unfamiliar body postures” and discomfort in the
interest of their disorientation. Instead of names, they were assigned numbers which were sewn onto their
uniforms, and tight-fitting nylon pantyhose caps to simulate shaven heads similar to those of military basic
training. In addition, they would have to wear a small chain around their ankles as a “constant reminder”
of their imprisonment and oppression.
The day before the experiment, guards attended a brief orientation meeting but were given no formal
guidelines, other than that no physical violence was permitted. They were told it was their responsibility to
run the prison, which they could do in any way they wished.
The participants who had been chosen to play the part of prisoners were told simply to wait in their homes
to be “called on” on the day the experiment began. Without any other warning, they were “charged” with
armed robbery and arrested by the actual Palo Alto police department, who were cooperating in this part
of the experiment.
The prisoners were put through a full booking procedure by the police, including fingerprinting and having
their mug shots taken, and were informed of their Miranda rights. They were transported to the mock
prison where they were strip-searched, “deloused” and given their new identities.
The experiment very quickly got out of hand. Prisoners suffered — and accepted — sadistic and
humiliating treatment at the hands of the guards, and by the end many showed severe emotional
After a relatively uneventful first day, a riot broke out on day two. Guards volunteered extra hours and
worked together to break up the revolt, without supervision from the research staff. After this point, the
guards tried to divide the prisoners and pit them against each other by setting up a “good” cell block and a
“bad” cell block, to make the prisoners think that there were “informers” amidst their ranks. The efforts
were largely effective, and there were no further large-scale rebellions. According to Zimbardo’s former
convict consultants, the tactic was similar to those used successfully in real US prisons.
Prisoner “counts”, which had initially been devised to help prisoners get acquainted with their identity
numbers, devolved into hours-long ordeals, in which guards tormented the prisoners and imposed
physical punishments including long bouts of forced exercise.
The prison quickly became unsanitary and inhospitable. Bathroom rights became privileges which could
be, and frequently were, denied. Some prisoners were made to clean toilets using their bare hands.
Mattresses were removed from the “bad” cell, and prisoners were forced to sleep on the concrete floor
without clothing. Food was also frequently denied as a means of punishment. Prisoners endured forced
nudity and even homosexual acts of humiliation.
Zimbardo himself cited his own increasing absorption in the experiment, in which he actively participated
and guided. On the fourth day, he and the guards reacted to a rumor of an escape plot by attempting to
move the entire experiment to a real, unused cell block at the local police department because it was
more “secure”. The police department refused him citing insurance concerns, and he recalls being angry
and disgusted at the lack of cooperation between his and the police’s correctional facilities.
As the experiment proceeded, several of the guards became progressively more sadistic — particularly at
night when they thought the cameras were off. Experimenters said approximately one-third had exhibited
“genuine” sadistic tendencies. Most of the guards were upset when it was cut off early.
Prisoners began to show severe acute emotional disturbance. One prisoner developed a psychosomatic
rash all over his body upon finding out that his “parole” had been turned down. Zimbardo had first turned
him down because he thought he was merely trying to “con” his way out of the prison by faking illness.
Uncontrollable crying and disorganized thinking were common among the prisoners. Two of the prisoners
suffered such severe trauma that they were removed from the experiment early and replaced.
One of the replacement prisoners, Prisoner #416, was horrified at the guards’ treatment and went on a
hunger strike in protest. He was forced into solitary confinement in a small closet for three hours, and the
other prisoners saw him as a troublemaker. To exploit this feeling, the guards offered the other prisoners
a choice: Either the prisoners could give up their blankets, or #416 would be kept in solitary confinement
overnight. The other prisoners chose to keep their blankets. Later Zimbardo intervened and had #416
returned to his cell.
One point that Zimbardo used to argue that the participants internalized their roles, was that when offered
“parole” in exchange for forfeiture of all of their pay, most prisoners accepted the deal. Then, when their
parole was nonetheless “rejected”, none left the experiment. Zimbardo argues that there was no reason
for them to continue participating if they would have given up the material compensation in order to leave.
Finally, Zimbardo decided to terminate the experiment early. Christina Maslach, a researcher previously
unfamiliar with the experiment that had been brought in to conduct interviews, objected to the appalling
conditions. Zimbardo has noted that of the over fifty outsiders who had seen the prison, she was the only
one who ever questioned its morality. After only 6 days of the planned two weeks, the experiment was
The experiment’s result has been argued to demonstrate the impressionability and obedience of people
when provided with a legitimizing ideology and social and institutional support. It is also used to illustrate
cognitive dissonance theory and the power of authority.
In psychology, the results of the experiment are said to support situational attributions of behavior rather
than dispositional attribution . In other words, it seemed to entail that the situation caused the participants’
behavior rather than anything inherent in their individual personalities. In this way it is compatible with the
results of the also-famous (or infamous) Milgram experiment, in which ordinary people fulfilled orders to
administer what appeared to be fatal electric shocks to a confederate of the experimenter.
Coincidentally, shortly after the study had been completed there were bloody revolts at both the San
Quentin and Attica prison facilities, and Zimbardo reported his findings on the experiment to the U.S.
House Committee on the Judiciary.
Criticism of the experiment
Despite its apparently dramatic effects, the experiment was widely criticized as being unethical and
bordering on unscientific. Critics including Erich Fromm challenged how readily the results of the
experiment could be generalized.
Being a field experiment, keeping traditional scientific controls was impossible. Zimbardo was not merely
a neutral observer but influenced the direction of the experiment as its “superintendent”. Conclusions and
observations drawn by the experimenters were largely subjective and anecdotal and the experiment
would be difficult for other researchers to reproduce.
Some argued that participants based their behavior on how they were expected to behave, or modeled it
after stereotypes they already had about how prisoners and guards behaved. In other words, the
participants were merely engaging in role playing. In response Zimbardo claimed that if there was role-
playing initially, participants internalized these roles as the experiment continued.
It was also criticized on a basis of ecological validity. Many of the conditions imposed in the experiment
were arbitrary and may not have correlated with actual prison conditions, including blindfolding incoming
“prisoners”, making them wear women’s clothing, not allowing them to wear underwear, not allowing them
to look out windows and not allowing them to use their names. Zimbardo argued that prison is a confusing
and dehumanizing experience and it was necessary to enact these procedures to put the “prisoners” in
the proper frame of mind. However, it is difficult to know exactly how effectively similar enough these
methods were, and they would be difficult to reproduce exactly so that others could test them.
Some said that the study was too deterministic: reports described significant differences in the cruelty of
the guards, the worst of whom came to be nicknamed “John Wayne “, but others were kinder and often
did favors for prisoners. Zimbardo made no attempt to explain or account for these differences.
Lastly, the sample size was very small, with only 24 participants taking place over a relatively short period
Comparisons to the Abu Ghraib abuse
The human rights abuses that occurred at the Abu Ghraib prison under the authority of the American
armed forces in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq war may be a recent example of what happened in the
experiment in real life. Soldiers were thrust into the role of prison guards and began to sadistically torment
prisoners there and at other detention sites in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many of the specific acts of
humiliation were similar to those that occurred in the Stanford Prison Experiment, according to
Zimbardo. The comparison was widely discussed in the media.
This theory has been challenged by allegations by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker that these soldiers
were in fact acting under direct orders of their superiors as part of a top secret Pentagon intelligence
gathering program authorized by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. It has also been challenged
by William Saletan of Slate in an article.
Another reference to the study is this NPR interview with Philip Zimbardo – relative to his
Stanford Prison Experiment available by way of the following web-link.(again – first click takes
you to our announcements page-second click take you to the website)
GENERAL GUIDELINES FOR THE S&R PAPERS
Have the title and the author of the paper in the heading like the example below. You need three
subheadings (in bold) thesis, summary and response. In each portion you are to write in distinct ways.
The thesis is one or two sentences capturing the general theme of the reading. The second part is the
summary. Here you simply summarize the author’s main points. No editorializing at this point. Just
paraphrase what the author told us. Include only two underlined, direct quotes form the reading. The
response is where you make your points and relate the reading to the ideas and terms your learning from
the Openstax text book. You must tie in at least four terms/concepts from the text within your response to
follow this format precisely, S&R papers are 350 and 475 words in length. (use word count)
SUBMITTED BY: (Your name) S&R #1 Submitted On: 1/30/12
“The Beauty Myth”, by W. Wolf (Title & Author)
Thesis: Sexism and prejudicial ideas regarding women and beauty do damage to women and men by
objectifying women, showing them as controlled and erotic which precludes a truly loving, egalitarian
connection between the genders. Also emphasized is the institutional nature of sexism and its
relationship to capitalism, the family, and media.
Summary: The author describes “beauty pornography”; the practice of portraying women as sexually
stimulated, and often as headless, body parts. Always erotically posed, often within a sadomasochistic
context, these images are designed to teach women “that no matter how assertive they are in the world,
their passive submission to control is what makes her desirable.” The author further explores the officially
enforced double standard regarding nakedness in mainstream culture. She argues that women’s breasts
while highly eroticized and considered private and regarded as a type of genitalia, is regularly displayed
and considered “not as naked” as showing penises or vaginas. She argues “women’s breasts then
correspond to men’s penises, as a vulnerable ‘sexual flower’ on the body, so that to display the former
and conceal the latter makes women’s’ bodies vulnerable while men’s’ is protected. Unequal nakedness
almost always expresses power relations.” She feels that this eroticizing the degradation of women is a
type of backlash against women’s recent self-accretions and a way to keep men and women apart. She
also suggests that if men and women really loved one another in a egalitarian, and erotic way that men
might begin to really include women and women’s perspectives in business and government. If men really
loved women as they were, without the beauty myth, the cosmetics industry, weight loss industry and
fashion industry would take a huge hit in profit margins. Further the pornography and sports car industry
would also be disabled without the lonely, disconnected, superficiality that dominates modern, urban
Response/Synthesis: (minimally, 1/3 of your paper) this is your unique “take” on the reading. It should
be more than a reiteration of the author’s points. In fact there should be nothing in this section but your
thoughts and ideas along with the concepts and terms we’re learning from the Openstax text book.
Highest grades earned will demonstrate the student’s ability to apply the terms and concepts from the text
book in the response section of this S&R essay. In addition to relating the reading to our text, you should
take what has been said by the author (1), and add some new connection or twist to the discussion (1+).
Examples might include any one of the following:
A question not yet raised is………….or
A prescription / solution not yet proposed is……or
A personal anecdote regarding my learning experience is….. or
A related or contributing problem not yet discussed is ….. etc.
Be creative by using your sociological imagination. Critical thinking requires thinking outside the box.
This example is 512 words.
A related or contributing problem not yet discussed is…..ETC.
Be creative by using your sociological imagination. Critical thinking requires thinking “outside of the box”
* THIS EXAMPLE PAPER IS 512 WORDS