The darker side of science | The Stanford Prisoner Experiment

Do prisons induce volatile behaviour? 

This is the question Philip Zimbardo set out to answer in the 1970s. Like the aforementioned experiments, this one also uncovered an unusual psychological aspect of human nature.

Prisons are scary. Cue images of large, gruff, shady-looking characters in dank cages behind long rows of metal bars (the prisoners of my imagination also have extensive dental problems). Stereotypical, maybe. But almost everyone would agree that they’re a bit ominous. They’re also notoriously violent in nature, and Zimbardo wanted to find out why.

He set up a mock prison in Stanford’s psychology department, and recruited some volunteers – half of which were randomly assigned to play prisoners, and the other half to play guards. It’s important to note here that every one of these volunteers were model citizens, lacking criminal records and psychologically ‘normal’. This type of clean slate among all participants ensured that, when left to their own devices for a few weeks, any developing behaviours or traits were not attributed to some pre-existing factor.

In order to make the experiment as accurate as possible, Zimbardo ensured that the guards were given ultimate power. They wielded wooden batons, and were given the authority to execute punishment in whichever way they saw fit. Mirrored sunglasses prevented eye contact with the prisoners, and they wore clean guard uniforms. Conversely, prisoners wore clothes that were ill-fitting, dirty and scraggly. There were referred to by an assigned number to further dehumanise them, and wore chains around their ankles. Yikes.

To Zimbardo’s surprise. the social conditions in the prisons deteriorated almost immediately. ‘Prisoners’ staged revolts and the ‘guards’, in turn, developed disciplinary tendencies and abusive behaviours; devising things like random strip-searches, monitored bathroom privileges and withholding food. Conditions became so intense that the first ‘prisoner’ actually left after a mere 36 hours. Others became sick with stress-related illness, emotional trauma, depression and even begun to show signs of insanity according to Zimbardo;

Prisoner #8612 then began to act “crazy,” to scream, to curse, to go into a rage that seemed out of control. It took quite a while before we became convinced that he was really suffering and that we had to release him.

So, the confinement of psychologically normal people in a corrosive environment for just six days is enough to make them either sadistically cruel or pathologically psychotic. The experiment was ended after this due a realisation by Zimbardo that it was going too far (um, you think?). Disturbingly, the guards actually enjoyed their new “status” and associated power – so much so that they became visibly upset once the experiment ended. Yes, these people were just like you and I before they entered the prison.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…


Featured image depicts a cell in Alcatraz, and is sourced from 


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