The Stanford Prison Experiment

stanford prison experiment

This article is going to explore one of the most famous and controversial psychological experiments called the Stanford Prison Experiment, in 1971 lead by Philip Zimbardo a professor at Stanford University. This experiment reveals how social roles can influence human behaviour, in particular prison life and the roles of ‘prisoner’ and ‘guard’.

The value of the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) resides in demonstrating the evil that good people can be readily induced into doing to other good people within the context of socially approved roles, rules, and norms, a legitimizing ideology, and institutional support that transcends individual agency

Participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment endured 6 days and nights of intense, often hostile, interactions that escalated daily in the level of interpersonal aggression of guards against prisoners. Take, as but one example of the confrontations that occurred repeatedly during the prison study, this statement found in a guard’s diary: “During the inspection ‘the prisoner’ grabbed my throat, and although I was really scared, I lashed out with my stick and hit him in the chin.”

The authority that created the prison setting was typically not in sight of the participants, but rather Zimbardo, in the role of prison superintendent, became an agency or remote agent overseeing the daily and nightly confrontations between these opposing forces. It became his job to regularily check the growing violence and arbitrary displays of power of the guards.

The Lucifer Effect provides some possible explanations for this phenomenon, as well as for those who have been involved in cultic groups or other situations in which, in retrospect, can become baffled by our own actions, which contradicted our previous notions of our identities.

What makes people engage in evil acts? In using the word “evil,” Zimbardo ventures into territory that has been considered taboo and controversial by many psychologists. He defines the word: “Evil consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize or destroy innocent others or using one’s authority and systemic power to encourage or permit others to do so on your behalf”

As is evident from this definition, the study of evil is the study of particular behaviors and motivations. As such, it could be argued that such a study is within the legitimate province of psychology, although some may be disturbed by this.

Read next: ‘The Milgram Experiment

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