The True Story of the Stanford Prison Experiment: It’s Not What You Thought

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The True Story of the Stanford Prison Experiment: It’s Not What You Thought

The True Story of the Stanford Prison Experiment: It’s Not What You Thought

One of the most classic psychology experiments that college freshmen read about in their psych 101 classes is the Stanford Prison Experiment. Conducted by Dr. Philip Zimbardo, the study supposedly shows the way that humans can be molded into good or bad behavior by their environments. To set up the experiment, Zimbardo recruited 24 students and randomly assigned them as prison guards or inmates. Prisoners were actually picked up by the Palo Alto police from their homes and roughly hauled in to the experiment.

Zimbardo describes the experiment as follows:

The question there was, what happens when you put good people in an evil place? We put good, ordinary college students in a very realistic, prison-like setting in the basement of the psychology department at Stanford. We dehumanized the prisoners, gave them numbers, and took away their identity. We also deindividuated the guards, calling them Mr. Correctional Officer, putting them in khaki uniforms, and giving them silver reflecting sunglasses like in the movie Cool Hand Luke. Essentially, we translated the anonymity of Lord of the Flies into a setting where we could observe exactly what happened from moment to moment.

Most people know the results. The guards grew to love their roles, enacting sadistic punishments on the prisoners, working extra hours, and legitimately torturing the other people in the experiment. Some had to be removed early, and Zimbardo actually shut the whole thing down after a mere 6 days. The conclusion seemed obvious: good people will do horrible things if they’re put in the right situation.

The problem is that there are serious problems with the set up of the experiment, and with Zimbardo’s presentation of his findings. The size of the experiment, as well as the length, were so small that very few useful conclusions can be drawn from the study, but even worse is the selection bias. In his advertisement, Zimbardo used the words “prison life,” which would affect who would be willing to apply for the experiment. He also only drew from male Stanford students, which severely limits the applicability of his findings.

The biggest problem that other analysts have found with the study, however, is that the conclusions aren’t what Zimbardo said they were. Most of the guards didn’t behave in a cruel manner. Some were friendly and did favors for prisoners. Most of the bad behavior came from the guard nicknamed John Wayne, who openly said he was just trying to emulate a character from Cool Hand Luke. If so few people in the experiment had altered behavior due to the environment, Zimbardo’s conclusions might be overreaching.

Another major criticism is that Zimbardo was part of the experiment himself. He took the role of the prison superintendent. That means he was the ultimate authority for the guards’ behavior. Most researchers today would throw out the study completely based on that fact alone.

Another problem was that Zimbardo didn’t conduct any research into the participants’ personalities outside of the experiment. He didn’t have any kind of control or way to account for different temperaments.

So although the Stanford Prison Experiment is well-known and could be held up as evidence that humans are cruel, the real facts about the experiment show that it’s simply a poorly designed study.

Related topics evil, experiment, psychology
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