We like to think that as conscious beings, we have full control over our actions. We often think that when the time comes, we’ll be in control of what we would do and how we do it. However, every psychology student will tell you that’s wrong. Not because they feel like it, but because we have classic psychology theories and experiments to tell you the same! While it is true that in some cases we can actively choose what course of action we want to take, many times we are bound by our internal biases. From bystander effect to being conformists, psychology experiments have been a wonderful, something disturbing way of understanding and evaluating the human mind.
One of the most famous studies regarding the cruelty of human nature came from Stanford University that (In)famously came to be known as the Standford Prison Experiment. The experiment was conducted to evaluate the effects of perceived power focusing on the dynamics between prisoners and prison guards. While the experiment goals seem rather harmless, the experiment itself caused havoc in the scientific community.
The psychologist who had expected to run a two-week study had to cut it down to 6 days. As Prof. Zimbardo put it –
“How we went about testing these questions and what we found may astound you. Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.”
The blurb as described in Wikipedia provides a wonderful overview of the experiment – Zimbardo and his team aimed to test the hypothesis that the inherent personality traits of prisoners and guards are the chief cause of abusive behavior in prison. Participants were recruited and told they would participate in a two-week prison simulation. The team selected the 24 males whom they deemed to be the most psychologically stable and healthy. These participants were predominantly white and of the middle class. The group was intentionally selected to exclude those with criminal backgrounds, psychological impairments, or medical problems. They all agreed to participate in a 7- to 14-day period and received $15 per day.
The experiment was conducted in the basement of Jordan Hall (Stanford’s psychology building). 12 of the 24 participants were assigned the role of prisoner (9 plus 3 alternates), while the other 12 were assigned the role of guard (also 9 plus 3 alternates). Zimbardo took on the role of the superintendent, and an undergraduate research assistant the role of the warden. Zimbardo designed the experiment in order to induce disorientation, depersonalization, and deindividuation in the participants.
The researchers held an orientation session for guards the day before the experiment, during which guards were instructed not to physically harm the prisoners or withhold food or drink. In the footage of the study, Zimbardo can be seen talking to the guards: “You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can create a notion of arbitrariness that their life is totally controlled by us, by the system, you, me, and they’ll have no privacy … We’re going to take away their individuality in various ways. In general what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness. That is, in this situation we’ll have all the power and they’ll have none.”
The researchers provided the guards with wooden batons to establish their status, clothing similar to that of an actual prison guard (khaki shirt and pants from a local military surplus store), and mirrored sunglasses to prevent eye contact. Prisoners wore uncomfortable, ill-fitting smocks and stocking caps, as well as a chain around one ankle. Guards were instructed to call prisoners by their assigned numbers, sewn on their uniforms, instead of by name.
The prisoners were “arrested” at their homes and “charged” with armed robbery. The local Palo Alto police department assisted Zimbardo with the arrests and conducted full booking procedures on the prisoners, which included fingerprinting and taking mug shots. The prisoners were transported to the mock prison from the police station, where they were strip-searched and given their new identities.
The small mock prison cells were set up to hold three prisoners each. There was a small corridor for the prison yard, a closet for solitary confinement, and a bigger room across from the prisoners for the guards and warden. The prisoners were to stay in their cells and the yard all day and night until the end of the study. The guards worked in teams of three for eight-hour shifts. The guards did not have to stay on site after their shift.
After only 36 hours, one prisoner began to act “crazy”, as Zimbardo described: “#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.”
Guards forced the prisoners to repeat their assigned numbers to reinforce the idea that this was their new identity. Guards soon used these prisoner counts to harass the prisoners, using physical punishment such as protracted exercise for errors in the prisoner count. Sanitary conditions declined rapidly, exacerbated by the guards’ refusal to allow some prisoners to urinate or defecate anywhere but in a bucket placed in their cell. As punishment, the guards would not let the prisoners empty the sanitation bucket. Mattresses were a valued item in the prison, so the guards would punish prisoners by removing their mattresses, leaving them to sleep on concrete. Some prisoners were forced to be naked as a method of degradation. Several guards became increasingly cruel as the experiment continued; experimenters reported that approximately one-third of the guards exhibited genuine sadistic tendencies. Most of the guards were upset when the experiment concluded after only six days.
Also, watch this BBC Documentary on the same.
Don’t forget to subscribe to The Psych Way to get weekly updates and exclusive content.