When Humanity Fails: The Stanford Experiments

Today, marks 31 years since the Stanford Prison experiments began on the same day in 1971. It is widely considered one of the most sadistic experiments ever performed in a modern psychological study. This experiment aimed to examine the effects of “situational variables” on human reactions and behaviors. More simply, they wanted to see what would happen when people were separated into two groups with opposite positions of power. The study was conducted by a team led by Stanford University psychology professor Philip Zimbardo. While largely deemed a failure and embarrassing footnote in the history of psychology, it is a look into the human psyche we should never forget.

The experiment started innocently enough. Participants were recruited through ads offering $15 a day (approx. $104 today) to engage in a psychological study of prison life. The ad didn’t clarify that they were only looking for prisoners and prison guards. Volunteer applicants were assessed for physical and mental health and stability. Twenty-four were chosen and split into two groups. These groups consisted of nine actives and three alternates each. One group represented prison guards and the other prisoners. Even at its inception, many had questioned the validity of the study or at least the methods proposed to achieve it, but on this cool Sunday morning in Palo Alto, CA, it began with gusto.

Those in the prisoner group found themselves arrested (literally arrested), with police coming to their door to execute some random warrant and taking them into custody. Upon arriving, they were booked for their offense but never really knew the reason.

It should be noted that observation began before the participants were arrested without warning for charges they did not understand, then being given the full arrest experience. Several seemed to forget all about the experiment they had agreed to, showing genuine panic, confusion, and in some cases, outrage. They were not allowed to meet any other participants before the booking, so there was no known face to remind them they were part of a test group. Though not widely discussed, it has been suggested that, unlike the prisoner group, prison guards were allowed to meet prior to the experiment and associate to build some semblance of the comradery well known to exist among police and prison guards who work together often. Relying on each other for safety and response in an emergency becomes almost like a family away from home. While the study was portrayed as an observation of human behavior within a prison setting, it soon became a devastating example of what people will do to others when placed in control.

The US Office of Naval Research funded the study to better understand the anti-social personality behavior and changes that prisoners suffer while incarcerated, hoping to find a better way to deal with struggles between the MP’s (military police) and prisoners. While defining the study as a way to see how power, group identity, and situational validation could change human behavior and possibly result in a person participating in behavior they would otherwise find repulsive, it soon became a study on how power creates abusive personalities, even in those who didn’t previously display such, and how abuse of authority forces a person to disassociate from themselves in order to tolerate the trauma and still be able to follow any instruction even if it is something they otherwise would refuse to do.

Many feel the initial ad for the program was vague at best and didn’t fully provide the applicant with enough information to decide what they agreed to, a criticism that has been reiterated many times throughout the psychological community. This is attributed to how quickly the experiment became the mess it is known as today. Several experts argue that simply presenting an experiment involving prison guards and prisoners opened the study up to attracting personality types much more prone to aggression and social dominance and low on empathy and altruism (a technical term for having the proper respect for life and other living things.) Making it an almost guaranteed hotbed of flaring tempers and rebellious mental types. Many believe had the study been presented more directly, they would have gained a better and more varied study group. Bearing better results and maybe even being able to finish the study. The groups were established randomly, but common traits were still found throughout both.

The experiment was conducted in a 35′ section of a basement in Jordan Hall, the psychology building at Stanford University. A small replica prison block was made inside, consisting of four cells, and each one would house three prisoners. The prisoners were only allowed to remain in their cell or “the yard.” Meanwhile, those in the guard group were allowed access to other amenities. Such as special areas to rest and relax on breaks during their shift. They were to work in shifts of three and were not required to remain at the site after their shift ended. Zimbardo took the role of Superintendent while his assistant David Jaffe portrayed the warden.

Guards were instructed they were not allowed to harm any prisoners physically nor withhold food and water, but otherwise were expected to maintain order however they found necessary. They were provided standard guard uniforms, wooden batons, and mirrored sunglasses to allow them some degree of anonymity. They were also instructed not to show the prisoners respect and to pretend they were not participants but actual prisoners. Nor should they respond favorably to any request. Zimbardo wanted to see the effect of being made to feel submissive, helpless, and ignored. He explained that this would reduce their individuality and that once it was established that the prisoners had no control over their situation or decisions, they would become docile and easy to control.

It was later argued that telling the guards to disrespect the prisoners instead of being firm with them tainted the experiment before it even began. Making the participating prisoner group feel helpless caused the guards to react and demand, not as they would have had they been given a role and allowed to progress it under more natural circumstances. Studies since have clarified that they are to maintain both order and morale among the prison groups. It was further argued that there is no such thing as “prison behavior” and that individuals develop their own types of behavior based on their own experiences while in prison. It was more casting a role than allowing an experiment to develop independently.

Within 24 hours of starting the experiments, guards had already filled their roles as requested. Terrorizing inmates with insults, absurd requests, threats, and other psychological torture. At first, the prisoner group showed resistance and was upset with the treatment. Reminding the guards that it was not necessary nor okay to treat them as they were, avoiding orders, and generally displaying the exact behavior of most inmates who have never been to prison and are yet to acclimate to the new life they now lead.

Within 48 hours, guards had begun to show further signs of sadism. Forcing prisoners to stay awake into the late hours of the night, then waking them right after they fall asleep, making them mime intimate acts with one another on threats of punishment, and degrading them whenever possible as much as possible. Soon several members of the prison group were beginning to display severe symptoms of anxiety, early-stage PTSD, and various other signs of distress. During one day of the experiment, a priest was sent to offer confession to the prisoners. Several refused to speak to him, fearing retribution if the guards found out they had ratted on them. Others displayed such distress the priest expressed concern, resulting in one participant who would only sob when asked if he was okay, being sent home in fear continuing his participation would cause a mental break of much larger proportions.

Zimbardo was no exception, having been accused of allowing himself to become so immersed in the superintendent role that he chose to overlook the bad behavior of his guards and abuse of his prisoners to protect his “staff.” By the fifth day, it had all become too much for one graduate student, Christina Maslach, who spoke out about the abuse and its results beginning to pass safe experimentation and becoming a breach of the participants’ moral rights under the basis of scientific study. They were actively suffering real mental trauma that may become permanent for the sake of a temporary study. Finally, they pulled the plug on the 5th day of the study.

The study has become a black mark on psychology’s record, with several films, documentaries, and other materials about the experiment. Zimbardo was cited as irresponsible and negligent in his study handling. Especially in regards to placing himself in a role that would cause him to favor those among the study “who were of his staff.” Observing from the sidelines could have prevented much of what happened between the guards and prisoners. It has been reported that many of the participants needed therapy to reduce the damage of those six days in hell, where they were only pretending to be in prison.

What Did The Stanford Experiments Prove?

It proved many things, but the strongest evidence was through “command” or personal choice. Those given power over another group’s lives will invariably lean toward violence, humiliation, and degradation to get desired results over mutual understanding and respect. When faced with such abuse, the human psyche becomes so overwhelmed it begins to self-defend by shutting down, turning us into shells of the people we once were. Maybe to recover but never to be the same. We’re always slightly altered through our experiences.