“What happens when you put good people in an evil place?” – Philip G. Zimbardo –
In what could be called the most famous psych experiment ever performed, Zimbardo and his colleges aimed to answer just that.
In the summer of 1971, long before internal review boards were enacted to ensure the safety of human research participants, a newspaper add called for college age volunteers in the Stanford, California area.
Out of the 75 people who applied to partake in this study, 25 were chosen at random; all of which were healthy college males, who after a thorough psychological examination, were deemed to be mentally sound.
Participants were randomly divided into two groups, prisoners and guards. Through the cooperation of local law enforcement, prisoners were arrested, taken to the county jail, processed and placed in a holding cell. After every prisoner had been processed they were all blindfolded and brought to the basement of the Stanford University psych building. The basement had been transformed into a prison, complete with 3 cells, a large hallway which they called the “courtyard”, an officers room, and a broom closet which was used for solitary confinement.
“Each prisoner was systematically searched and stripped naked. He was then deloused with a spray, to convey our belief that he may have germs or lice”
The only difference between the prisoners and the guards were their dress. Prisoners wore large white t shirts with numbers stenciled onto them, they also wore stocking caps to simulated a shaved head. Guards wore khaki police uniforms and reflective aviators, they carried a whistle and a night stick. What’s amazing is that these Guards were not given any special instructions, they were simply told to guard the prisoners. What came to follow has changed the way we look at power and obedience.
Guards immediately began to assert their authority. Each Prisoner was only referred to by his number and was subject to periodical “counts” where prisoners were to line up outside of their cells in number order. Prisoners quickly grew angry at this treatment and began to resist orders, in retaliation, the Guards would often punish them by having them do push ups or clean the toilets in the bathroom. And so it went, prisoners would rebel, and the Guards would punish. It eventually got as far as a prison riot which was only quelled with the use of fire extinguishers. Although they never used force, Guards became ruthless, continually punishing and verbally abusing prisoners. They would not stop until they broke down every prisoner into submission.
Prisoners began complaining of emotional disturbances, this experiment had become too much for them. Zimbardo, who had given himself the role of prison warden, was so engulfed in his role that he became more worried about the order of his “prison” than the well being of his research participants.
The experiment was planned to last two weeks, after six days it was shut down by Zimbardo himself. Enough was enough.
For a more comprehensive rundown of the SPE along with pictures and videos, please visit this site.
Also there is a great chapter on this in Lauren Slater’s Opening Skinners Box, which I highly recommend.
What does it all mean?
Let’s be clear, every participant volunteered for this experiment, and although they were being paid 15 dollars an hour, they were told that they could leave at any time and still get paid.
The participants instantly assimilated into their roles, roles given to them by society, and perpetuated by themselves. Many of the Guards were seen by their friends and family as kind, well adjusted men; only to be transformed into a ruthless punishing authority figures by a pair of aviators.
Obedience isn’t bad, in fact it is needed for any group to function successfully. However, it is important to look at those who hold power and ask, what makes this person powerful, their skills and knowledge? or their title?