The Real Lesson of the Stanford Prison Experiment

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It was early on the Sunday morning of August 17, 1971, when the Stanford Study Experiment first commenced. A college student was confused as he heard sirens blaring and a police officer placed him under arrest and drove him towards Stanford University. The “prison” made him give his fingerprint and entered it in the system as they got him booked. They forced him to strip his clothing, sprayed him with a disinfectant to prevent lice and disease, and gave him a cap made out of women’s stockings to emulate the act of shaving one’s head. Then he was given a beige smock and forced to wear it with nothing underneath. This was only the beginning of the embarrassment. When he got up that day he had no clue that he would go down in history along with one of the most famous, and unethical, experiments in psychology.

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The head scientist Philip Zimbardo, who also acted as a prison warden, said the purpose of the Stanford Prison Experiment was to determine if a person chooses a certain job or role that may seem evil because they are also evil, or if they are influenced to be evil because of the role they are in. There is a saying that power corrupts, and by giving power to the prison guards in the experiment, he was essentially trying to prove this as being correct. He gave the prison guards the freedom to make whatever rules they thought necessary to do their job. He also studied how after a certain amount of time the prisoners began to forget they were in an experiment and think they couldn’t leave, even though in their contract it said they could leave the simulation whenever they felt like it. The results of the experiment showed that while in the simulation the students who acted as guards did bad things that were seemingly out of the norm for their personality. It also showed that those acting as prisoners were likely to take the abuse because they began to feel as though they had done something to deserve the cruel treatment that they received.

Even though Zimbardo proved his hypothesis correct, there are still some other variables we must take into account. One major problem is the fact that there is no clear independent variable. If we look at the mechanics of the experiment nothing was changed or manipulated to try and affect the results. Even Phillip Zimbardo agreed with the fact that this was a major flaw in his experiment. On the website that Zimbardo created for the experiment, he says, “Gordon had heard we were doing an experiment, and he came to see what was going on. I briefly described what we were up to, and Gordon asked me a very simple question: ‘Say, what’s the independent variable in this study?’ To my surprise, I got really angry at him…and now, I had to deal with this bleeding-heart, liberal, academic, effete dingdong who was concerned about the independent variable!” This also brings up another flaw in the experiment. Zimbardo himself was acting as a prison warden which involved him in the experiment. By putting himself in this position he is skewing the results with potential, and unavoidable, bias, but also is exposing himself to the potential effects of the experiment. The very behavioral effects he was trying to study! Of course it would make sense that his hypothesis would be proven correct he was in the experiment affecting the results. Some of the participants even claimed to act out like he expected just so they could go home, or stop being punished so harshly. These have been the main focal point of many critics who seek to debunk the findings of the said experiment. Some also believe that the study should not be included in textbooks or as a reference in other experiments.

One of the reasons this experiment is so famous is because of the horrible ethics. The guards were beating and degrading the prisoners as punishment. Solitary confinement, which was supposed to have an hour limit, was being used for multiple hours. Some inmates were having mental breakdowns and were refused a release because they were thought to be faking or just being puny. These factors were a huge problem in the experiment and could have affected the results. Real prison guards have to follow rules, they are not allowed to just make them up as they go. As the experiment went on the ethics got worse as did the quality. One of the reasons we may never get the real results of this experiment is because it is so ethically unsound that it can not be repeated.

There are many examples of bias and confounding variables in the Stanford prison study. The first problem I would like to call attention to is the fact that the sample was not representative. All of the participants were male and lived in the same general area. There is the bias that Zimbardo worked at Stanford so those who attended the school may have an unfair advantage or a disadvantage. Another problem is the fact that Zimbardo included himself in the experiment and consequently got caught up in it. This could have affected his results because since he made the hypothesis he might accidentally, or purposefully, alter his behavior to fit his prediction. Also by entering the experiment, he could influence the behaviors of those taking part in the study. He could not isolate the variables because he did not even know what his independent variable was. If someone were to analyze the experiment they would see no manipulated variable. The “experiment” was more like an environmentally controlled case study. The study seems so flawed that its results should be rendered useless, but other similar experiment’s results have shown consistency with the results correlating with Zimbardo’s.

At the end of the day, the experiment was neither a win or a loss. The results were skewed, and yet somewhat relevant. The ethics were atrocious and still are highly criticized to this day, and can never be repeated without consequence. The Stanford Prison Study Experiment is a textbook example of how not to perform a safe and reasonable experiment. Even with all of its mistakes it has had a large impact on contemporary psychology and understanding how certain variables like excess power can alter one’s personality. It is one of the events in history in which we look back on, learn from, but never attempt to recreate, and it all started on that one Sunday morning of August 17, 1971. Who would have thought?

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