The effects of Stanford Prison Experiment on prisoners and the similarities with those of prisoners in Abu Ghraib


            Professor Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University conducted an experiment to establish the psychological effects of prisoners in August 1971. This experiment resulted in various effects on prisoners. In the experiment, 24 participants were to act as prisoners and prison wardens in order to be paid $15 per day (Zimbardo, 1972). The prisoners were subjected to physical abuse by the guards and harassed other prisoners as well. Two prisoners abandoned the experiment early and the whole experiment was stopped after 6 days. Similarly, acts of abuse and torture were reported at Abu Ghraib prison in Middle East and were publicized in March 2004. Zimbardo found a similarity between the Abu Ghraib case and the Stanford experiment. This research paper identifies the effects of the Stanford experiment and how they are related with those of prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison.

            One of the effects of the experiment is that the prisoners internalized their prison identities. Even after losing their pay, which motivated the participants to participate in the experiment, the prisoners continued to participate in the experiment. All prisoners and prison wardens were absorbed in their own roles and accepted to live with the situation they faced. The experiment therefore led prisoners to live with their situation and accept the torture they received, and the guards to take up their abusive roles. According to Zimbardo, the Abu Ghraib case in which prisoners underwent torture and some of the prison guards were blamed (Zimbardo, 2007). In this case, Zimbardo says that like in his own Stanford experiment, the guards and prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison went through a system of problems brought about by a formal military incarnation system. The prisoners and wardens in Abu Ghraib had just adapted the situation in the prison like the prisoners in Stanford Experiment.

1.      Introduction

Stanford Prison Experiment was a study carried out by researchers from Stanford University led by Philip Zimbardo and funded by the US Office of Naval Research at Stanford University in order to determine the effects of being a prisoner or a prison guard. This study was important to both the US Navy and the Marine Corps of USA. The study involved 24 male students from the University of Stanford who were assigned roles as prisoners and prison guards in a mock prison located in the University’s psychology building. The purpose of the experiment was to test Zimbardo’s hypothesis that the individual traits and personalities of prisoners and prison guards determine the abusive nature of prisons (Haslam & Reicher, 2012). The chosen students chosen to undertake the experiment were considered to be psychology healthy and stable. The students were dressed like normal prisoners and given mirrored sunglasses to avoid eye contact. Prison guards were required to call prisoners by their numbers instead of their names. The prisoners were arrested, charged and put into mock prison. They were required to stay in prison all day and night until the end of the experiment.

The result was that the prisoners revolted and prison wardens acted as leaders to subdue the revolts. The participants internalized their roles as prisoners and prison wardens in the prison. Although their monetary compensation for participation was halted, they continued participating anyway because they had internalized their identities as prisoners. The effect of the experiment demonstrates that people become impressed and obedient when they are subjected to legitimizing ideology and social and institutional support. This is similar to the Abu Ghraib situation whereby prisoners went through torture and abuse. This paper will analyze the Zimbardo/Stanford experiment in order to determine its effect on prisoners. It will also compare it with the case of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq which was publicized in 2004.

2.      Methods

            This study uses secondary sources of data to provide relevant information about the effects of Zimbardo experiment. This will include the use of websites including Zimbardo experiment website and other materials found on the internet. The paper will also use articles and books that explain the Zimbardo experiments. These will be included in the literature review section of the paper. Once the relevant materials and information have been collected, they will be analysed in terms of methods used in the experiment, effects and significance of the study.

3.      Literature Review

Methods used in the experiment

The goal of the team of psychologists who carried out the Stanford experiment led by Philip Zimbardo was to test the hypothesis that the abusive behaviors of prisoners and prison guards are caused by their inherent personality traits. The experiment tested the power of social situation to model behavior. The experiment involved college students from Stanford University who were asked to participate in the experiment voluntarily as prisoners and prison wardens. The students were arrested in their homes and taken to prison set at the basement of the university’s psychology building where they were asked to play the roles of prison wardens and prisoners (Zimbardo, 1992). The mock prison setting of the experiment was a good setting for the situational power can influence individual attitudes, behavior and values.

            Zimbardo and his team chose 24 men who were considered to be the most stable and healthy psychologically. They were mainly white and middle class. These students were specifically selected to exclude those who had criminal records, medical problems and psychological disabilities. The experiment was intended to last for two weeks and each participant was promised $15 per day for participating in the experiment (Zimbardo, 1972). In the experiment, Zimbardo became the superintendent of the prison, twelve students became prisoners and the other twelve became prison guards. An undergraduate research assistant was assigned the role of prison warden.

            The guards were given an orientation before the experiment. They were asked not to harm the prisoners physically, but to cause in them a feeling of boredom, fear, and arbitrariness that they are under the control of the system (Reicher & Haslam, 2006). The prisoners were made to think that they had no privacy. Zimbardo explained to the prison guards that they were supposed to take the individuality of the prisoners in order to create a sense of powerlessness.

            The guards, the warden and the superintendent were given all the power, but the prisoners were given none. The guards were provided with batons to indicate their status, and were required to dress like actual prison guards. They were khaki shirt and pants from the surplus stores of local military. They were also given mirrored glasses like those won by real prison wardens in order to prevent direct eye contact. On the other hand, prisoners were provided with uncomfortable smocks and stocking caps. They also wore a chain around one of their ankles. The prisoners had numbers sewn on their uniforms, and the prison guards were required to call them by those numbers and not their names.

            The prisoners were arrested from their homes, charged with armed robbery and taken Zimbardo’s prison. Police from the local Palo Alto department assisted Zimbardo to conduct the arrests. The police also helped the researchers to set the procedures of the prison. In the mock prison, the prisoners were strip checked and given different identities (Zimbardo, 2007). Their hair was also shaved. The prison set for the experiment was set in a way that each prison cell held three prisoners. Prison guards and warden were provided with larger rooms. Prisoners were required to remain in their cells all day and all night for the entire time set for the experiment. The guards worked in teams of three in four eight-hour shifts per day.

Effects of the experiment

            The Stanford experiment provided an analysis to demonstrate the impact of institutional forces on the behavior normal, healthy participants. This experiment sought to determine the extent to which the anti-social behaviors and violence of prisoners are influenced by bad systems that go into the prisons to corrupt even good ordinary people (Zimbardo, 2007).

            From the experiment, many of the normal prisoners suffered intense emotional stress. This led to the release of the prisoners prematurely in 6 days, before the end of two weeks intended for the experiment. The prisoners became zombies, and obeyed all the orders of the guards (Zimbardo, 1972). This was caused by the distress of the prisoners occasioned by the powerlessness induced by the prison guards. The guards acted with cruelty, they were sadistic and inhumane in their actions against the prisoners. The degrading actions of the prison guards against the prisoners were getting out of control although they were healthy, normal and ordinary students a week before. This uncontrollable degrading behavior of prisoners and the depressing and emotionally stressful behavior of prisoners led to the termination of the experiment prematurely.

Comparison to Abu Ghraib

            The Zimbardo experiment is similar to the Abu Ghraib situation whereby prisoners went through torture and abuse. Reports of torture and abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were publicized in 2004. Zimbardo acknowledged the similarity between the Abu Ghraib case and his own experiment, and suggested that the abuse and torture of the Abu Ghraib prisoners resulted from systematic problems of a formally established military system (Zimbardo, 2007). In both cases, the abusive behaviors of the prison guards and the depressing feeling of prisoners were caused by the situational forces from the system that has been established in the prisons.

4.      Discussion

            The prisoners had internalized their roles in the prisoners so intensely that even a loss of their monetary compensation could not deter them from continuing in the experiment. The prison guards of the experiment suggested that it was difficult for guards to handle nine prisoners in one cell. Therefore, they used psychological strategy to control the prisoners. Zimbardo suggests that a privilege cell was established for those prisoners who did not participate in riots to enjoy decent meals. The privileged inmates did not eat the meals they were offered in order to become uniform with other prisoners (Zimbardo, 2007). One of the prisoners became crazy; screaming, cursing, raging and completely out of control. The prison leaders then realized that the prisoner was really suffering, and he had to be released.

            From the literature review, it is clear that the experiment resulted in different behaviors of prisoners and prison wardens who participated in the experiment. The prison guards acted abusively and cruelly. They treated the prisoners inhumanely and sadistically. On the other hand, the prisoners acted in a depressed manner. Prisoners who were originally normal, healthy and ordinary college students turned out to be emotionally disturbed, depressed and crazy (Zimbardo, 1972). Their psychological health was disturbed due to the situation they were subjected to, and not their personality traits or their original state of health.

            The depressing and stressing behavior of prisoners and the abusive behavior of prison guards can be attributed to the situational forces within the prison. The experiment therefore explains the contribution of situational causes of aberrant behaviors of prisoners and prison guards (Haney & Zimbardo, 1998). This situational analysis shifts the blame for the behaviors of prisoners and prison guards from an exclusive focus on a few “bad apples” to systemic abuse found in “bad barrel” of corrupting prison environment.

            The comparison with the Abu Ghraib prison incident whereby abuse of prisoners was accused suggests that the experiment by Zimbardo reflected the reality of prisons. The Abu Ghraib prison experienced abuse and torture. The official military and government representatives blamed “a few bad apples” for the Abu Ghraib prison torture case (Zimbardo, 2007). Zimbardo dismissed this blame based on his own experiment, and suggested that the systemic problems of the formally established military and government institutions should be blamed. This is because the behaviors of prisoners are attributable to situational and systemic problems and not personality traits.

5.      Conclusion

In conclusion, it can be argued that Zimbardo experiment demonstrates the obedience and impressionability of people when subjected to social and institutional guidelines and ideologies. The results support the situational ascription of behavior and dismiss the dispositional ascription. This means that situation caused the behavior of participants in the Stanford experiments, while their personality traits did not contribute to the behavior. The Abu Ghraib torture and abuse case reported in 2004 also showed the same results – situation rather than personal behavior caused the torture and abuse behavior of the prison.

References list

Baofu, P. (2011). Beyond ethics to post-ethics: A preface to a new theory of morality and   immorality. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Pub.

DiJoseph, J. (2010). Noble cause corruption, the banality of evil, and the threat to American           democracy, 1950-2008. Lanham, Md: University Press of America

Haney, C. & Zimbardo, P.G., (1998). The Past and Future of U.S. Prison Policy. Twenty-Five      Years After the Stanford Prison Experiment. American Psychologist, 53(7), 709-727.

Haslam, S. A. & Reicher, S. D. (2012). When prisoners take over the prison: A social         psychology of resistance. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 154-179.

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority. New York: Harper & Row.

Musen, K. & Zimbardo, P. G. (1991). Quiet rage: The Stanford prison study. Videorecording.       Stanford, CA: Psychology Dept., Stanford University.

Reicher, S. D.., & Haslam, S. A. (2006). Rethinking the psychology of tyranny: The BBC Prison Study. British Journal of Social Psychology, 45, 1–40.

Zimbardo, P.G. (2007). The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. New       York: Random House.

Zimbardo, P. G. (1972). Stanford prison experiment: A simulation study of the psychology of             imprisonment. Stanford, Calif: Philip G. Zimbardo, Inc.


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