Today’s blog is about one of the defining studies in the field of social psychology. In 1971, American psychologist Philip Zimbardo asked whether the abuse and violence seen in the nation’s prisons was due to inherent personality traits in both the prisoners and the guards.

A mock prison was constructed in the basement of Stanford University’s psychology building and 24 applicants, chosen for their psychological stability and good physical health. These 24 men were split into two groups: prisoners and prison guards. In the orientation the day before the study, Zimbardo and his graduate assistants instructed the guards that they could “create in the prisoners a sense of boredom…a notion of arbitrariness” but the guards were explicitly told not to physically harm the prisoners.

The experiment began with an element of realism the participants were not expecting. With help from the local Palo Alto police, the 12 ‘prisoners’ were arrested in their homes and underwent a full booking procedure before being taken to the mock prison. They were greeted by the ‘guards’- dressed in khaki and mirrored sunglasses with a wooden baton and provided with a smock and stocking cap. Day 1 was uneventful as people settled into their roles. However, on day 2, the prisoners in cell 1 (of 4) barricaded their cell. The guards, who were not required to stay on site after their shifts, volunteered to take on extra work to quell the dissidents and promptly attacked the members of cell 1 with fire extinguishers.

In response to this unrest amongst the prison population, the guards set up a privilege cell for the prisoners who did not participate in the chaos, causing divisions within the prison inmates as the privilege inmates began to take their meals, which were better quality, away from the prisoner’s mess. After 36 hours, Zimbardo made the decision to remove an inmate after his behaviour became increasingly erratic.

The next few days saw the guards becoming increasingly abusive. They forced prisoners to repeat their ID number in order to instil the mentality that it was their new identity; they denied the prisoners bathroom facilities, instead giving each cell a bucket (the guards would subsequently refuse requests to empty the buckets). At the experiment’s peak, one-third of the guards displayed genuine sadistic tendencies. When prisoner 416, who had been brought in to replace the prisoner that Zimbardo had removed, went on a hunger strike over the conditions the prisoners were subjected to and he was subsequently placed in a dark closet that acted as ‘solitary confinement’.

The two week experiment ended after six days after Zimbardo’s girlfriend, Christina Maslach, objected to the conditions of the prisoners when she was brought in to conduct interviews. But here’s the thing, of the 50 people who in some way observed the experiment, only Maslach had questioned the morality of what was happening.

So what did society learn? Well, Zimbardo rejected his initial hypothesis. It seemed that one’s situation determined one’s behaviour. Much like the Milgram experiment of 1963, the power provided or exerted by authority will have a large effect on the actions we undertake. I remind you that all 24 men were deemed psychologically stable at the experiment’s onset and yet the ‘guards’ eagerly fulfilled their position and took matters into their own hands.

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