The Stanford Prison Experiment: Procedure, Participants And Results

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The Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment has been a topic of controversy ever since it took place in 1971. A scientific mastermind by the name of Philip D. Zimbardo conducted a series of studies that would record the psychological effects that imprisonment had on both prisoners and guards. This experiment took place at Stanford University, where Zimbardo was a professor in psychology. The Stanford Prison Experiment has been such a controversial issue due to the issue of unethical research. This experiment could not be repeated in today’s day and age because it simply does not meet the requirements of multiple ethical codes, including the American Psychological Association’s Ethics Code. Nonetheless, The Stanford Prison Experiment remains as one of the most critical studies when it comes to how dire and unusual situations can affect human behavior.


To begin the experiment, Zimbardo converted a Stanford University basement into a mock prison. The mock prison included three 6’ x 9’ prison cells, each of these cells could hold three prisoners along with three cots on which the prisoners slept on. The remaining rooms were designated for the prison guards and the warden. One cramped space became the solitary confinement room, and another confined room was designed to be the prison yard. Participants were paid at a wage of $15 per day for 1-2 weeks. Once the experiment had begun, the participants were given the position of either prisoner or prison guard. These roles were given to the participants in a completely random fashion. Prisoners were handled in the same fashion that criminals are normally treated, cameras and microphones were also strategically and secretly placed throughout the prison in order to record the behavior of both the prisoners and guards.

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When trying to locate individuals who would take part in the experiment, Zimbardo and his research team placed advertisements in local newspapers, offering $15 a day to male college students to partake in this experiment. After 75 students had initially responded to the advertisement, showing interest, only 24 of the original 75 were deemed fit to be part of the experiment. These 24 students had zero records of any criminal activity, psychological disorders or medical history. To bring the prisoners in, the participants were arrested. The Palo Alto Police conducted unexpected arrests at the participants’ houses. When arrested, the students were handcuffed, read their rights, then blindfolded and thrown into a patrol car to be taken in for booking and fingerprints. The first five participants were charged with burglary, and the other remaining four were charged with armed robbery. Once the experiment began the roles of prisoner and prison guard were assigned randomly, with the flip of a coin, to ensure that the roles were assigned 100% randomly. the prisoners were to stay in the mock prison for 24 hours a day until the study was completed, while the prison guards were divided into teams of three, each team took turns working an eight-hour shift. Both guards and prisoners could leave the experiment at any time they felt the need.


Ethics refers to moral principles that govern a person or a group’s behavior or the conducting of an activity. Research in the subject of psychology runs into many issues when trying to complete even a simple, mundane activity, and upholding good morals, as well as practicing ethical practices is very important in ensuring the individuals who participate in the experiments, the knowledge that you seek and the study overall all do a good job in maintaining good morals. To make sure that researchers and scientists across the nation realize the ethical responsibility they carry when trying to acquire brand-new knowledge byways of going through with these experiments, the American Psychological Association has implemented an Ethics Code “that deals with such diverse issues as sexual harassment, fees for psychological services, providing advice to the public in the media, test, construction, and classroom teaching” (Shaughnessy, Zechmeister & Zechmeister, 2009). Ahead of a study taking place, it must be reviewed to check if it meets the ethical requirements the American Psychological Association has implemented; these standards are determined in colleges by Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), these IRBs ensure that researchers are not putting participants in harm’s way, and retaining the participants’ human rights. As stated in Shaughnessy, Zechmeister & Zechmeister (2009), “The IRB has the authority to approve, disapprove, or require modifications of the research plan prior to its approval of the research. The IRB also has an ethical responsibility to make sure its review of research proposals is fair by considering the perspectives of the institution, the researcher, and the research participants” (pp 62-63).

The Experiment

In 1971, a psychologist by the name of Philip Zimbardo was curious as to how different situations can impact human behavior, more specifically Zimbardo and his fellow researchers wanted to study how the modern prison system can affect the behaviors of individuals who are placed in those predicaments. Cherry (2010) quotes Zimbardo in an interview: “’Suppose you had only kids who were normally healthy, psychologically and physically, and they knew they would be going into a prison-like environment and that some of their civil rights would be sacrificed. Would those good people, put in that bad, evil place—would their goodness triumph?’

Results of the Experiment.

Although the experiment was intended to span over the course of two weeks, the study had to be halted after merely six days. The experiment had to be stopped due to what was happening to the prisoners, the prison guards were abusing the power they were given and the participants who were playing the role of the prisoners were exhibiting signs of extreme stress and anxiety. According to Cherry (2010), “Five of the prisoners began to experience such severe negative emotions, including crying and acute anxiety, that they had to be released from the study early.” Some examples of the dehumanizing behavior that the guards were exhibiting to the prisoners include; being taunted with insults and petty orders, also a plethora of boring tasks were given to the prisoners to complete. However, the punishment that the prisoners were going through was not only physical, the prisoners also endured physical pain as well. The prison guards were often ordering the prisoners to do push-ups, one of the guards even stepped on the back of one prisoner’s back, or made the other prisoners sit on the backs of their peers. Unexpectedly, the participants were not the only individuals involved in the study who were losing sight of reality, Zimbardo and his fellow researchers strayed far from the path of ethical responsibility that they were expected to stay on. Zimbardo, who was acting as a prison warden, brushed the actions of the guards, essentially under the rug, Zimbardo essentially paid no mind to the abusive actions of the guards. A third party by the name of Christina Maslach was introduced to the study in order to conduct interviews with both the guards and the prisoners. After completing the interviews, Maslach strongly disagreed with what was going on, she stated ‘It’s terrible what you are doing to these boys!’ Maslach was the only individual involved in the entire study who had a moral objectification to the situation at hand. Zimbardo did not express regret until much later, in his book The Lucifer Effect that was released in 2008, Professor Zimbardo wrote: ‘I was guilty of the sin of omission — the evil of inaction — of not providing adequate oversight and surveillance when it was required… the findings came at the expense of human suffering. I am sorry for that and to this day apologize for contributing to this inhumanity.’ (pp. 181, 235)


The Stanford Prison Experiment, even if labeled unethical and not able to be repeated in today’s age, has given knowledge on to how humans react when placed in certain situations. It has told us that people will easily conform to the social roles they are normally proposed to. 


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