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A Psychological Study of Human Response to Restraint

The Stanford Prison Experiment is a psychological experiment that was conducted by psychologist Philip Zimbardo. The experiment represented a psychological study of human response to restraint, to the conditions of prison life and the influence of the imposed social role on behavior. The study was financed by the U.S. Navy in order to explain the conflicts in its correctional facilities and in the Marines.

To better understand the impact of prison conditions as such, in 1971 Stanford University psychology department conducted the experiment where twenty-four specially selected the most average and normal volunteers aged 25-30 were placed in man-made prison conditions. Participation in the experiment required not only an impeccable past. All subjects underwent multistage pre-testing, as a result of which those who expressed slightest tendency to depression, increased aggression, or at least some other pathology were eliminated. The researchers selected normal in all respects young men, very poised and intellectually developed. One of small corridors of the University was converted into a “jail”. The task was not to recreate an exact copy of prison, but to create conditions sufficiently accurately transmitting the atmosphere of this institution (Zimbardo, 2008).

Zimbardo created a number of specific conditions for participants to bring them into disorientation, loss of sense of reality and self-identification. The subjects had to feel like the imprisoned, not just like participants of the experiment. Among the most important points the experiment outlined and recreated the following: deindividuation; demasculinization, suppression, oppression, humiliation (Zimbardo, 2008).

The procedure of labeling had a number of specificities. The group consisting of twenty-four young men was randomly divided into “prisoners” and “guards”. Noticeably, nobody was given any roles or behavior patterns. However, upon receiving authority, the guards began to actively use it taking a confident, proactive position. Many of them admitted that they job allowing them to fully control and manage the situation and other people brought them a lot of pleasure (Carnahan & McFarland, 2007). This could also be seen from the video showing that often the guards just walked along the wards with a smug look shaking batons in their hands, as well as from the fact that for the time of the experiment none of the guards was late for work, there was not a single sick or compensatory leave, and no one ever refused from overtime work (Zimbardo, 2008).

It is characteristic that after the experiment, the “prisoners” were convinced that the “guards” were selected not by tossing a coin, but from the most healthy and strong, although in fact there was no difference in physical development of participants. All the “strength” of the guards successfully controlling the behavior the prisoners was purely subjective (Carnahan & McFarland, 2007).

Thus, prisoners and guards rapidly adapted to their roles, and, contrary to expectations, truly dangerous situations began to emerge. The experiment quickly got out of control. Prisoners experienced sadistic and degrading treatment by guards and by the end many of them had strong emotional distress. Every third guard manifested sadistic inclinations, and two prisoners were excluded from the experiment before its end due to their severe mental state. The experiment was finished ahead of time.

On the other hand, after just a few hours after the end of the experiment the emotional level of the participants came back to norm and further, keeping in touch, no one reported any negative effects of the experiment. After the experiment, two “prisoners” changed their career plans; one of them became a lawyer for prisoners, and the other – a prison psychologist. The main conclusion of the study is the fact that it is impossible to predict on the basis of any personal data how a person will behave in an extremely favorable or unfavorable situation without placing the person in the conditions of the situation (Lurigio, 2009).

In this perspective, the only conclusion that can be done from an analysis of the psychological state of the prisoners before the experiment and in the end of it is that the dependent, passive individuals handled the imprisonment somewhat easier than proactive, independent and creative ones. No other dependencies between the nature and success of “adaptation” to the prison have been established. Deprived of all power and control of the situation, the behavior of prisoners became extremely passive. The only form of initiative was resistance to perform the commands of supervisors, and this resistance was getting weaker, and by the end of the experiment (i.e., on the 5th day already) half of the prisoners did not resist at all.

Zimbardo (2008) argues that this study represents a classic example of how different situations and systems can suppress the good intentions of the participants and transform ordinary, normal young people into sadistic guards.

The experimental results were used to demonstrate the sensitivity and obedience of people in the presence of a justifying ideology supported by the state and society. They were also used to illustrate the theory of cognitive dissonance and the impact of the power of authority. In psychology, the experimental results are used to demonstrate the situational factors of human behavior as opposed to the personal. In other words, it seems that the situation affects a person’s behavior more than the intrinsic properties of the individual. In these terms, the results are similar to the result of the well-known Milgram’s experiment conducted in 1963 at Yale University by Stanley Milgram, Zimbardo’s former classmate, where ordinary people obeyed the orders against their own will and thus became accomplices of the experimenter.

By coincidence, shortly after the end of the study there were bloody riots in San Quentin and Attica prisons, and Zimbardo reported his experience in the experiment to the U.S. Department of Justice.

At the same time, the experiment was carried out without taking into account the ethical principles of the American Psychological Association, and is rightly criticized as unethical and unscientific (Lurigio, 2009). From the standpoint of ethics the experiment is again often compared with Milgram’s experiment.

Clay Ramsey, who acted as a prisoner during the experiment, believes that the Stanford experiment should not have been carried out at all. According to him, it had no real scientific basis and contradicted ethical norms. Ramsey argues that the most valuable thing about this experiment is that it ended ahead of time, and the worst thing is that for 40 years, its author, Zimbardo, got a lot of attention, and as a result people were shown an example of how not to do science (Carnahan & McFarland, 2007).

However, Zimbardo himself calls this viewpoint “naive” and claims that his research was very valuable for the study of human psychology, because among other things, it allowed people to understand the causes of abuse in Abu Ghraib prison (Zimbardo, 2008).

Indeed, when the Abu Ghraib scandal occurred (abuse and torture of detainees in U.S. military prison in Iraq) in March 2004, many observers immediately noticed its similarity to the Stanford prison experiment, including Philip Zimbardo, who got very interested in the details of this story. His was concerned by the efforts of official militaries and the government to blame the abuse on a few guards rather than recognizing it as a systemic problem of the official military system of punishment.

What conclusions does this experiment suggest? Its discussions have not subsided for 40 years already. One thing is clear: almost every one of us carries one’s own prison inside, and inwardly is ready to play a role of a ruthless guard or a miserable prisoner. The role that comes to the forefront depends on the prevailing conditions of life. Or is it up to the man himself? According to Zimbardo (2008), the experiment shows that human nature cannot always be controlled by what is called free will, and in fact most of us can provoke the behavior which will completely contradict to our vision of ourselves.

Carnahan, T., & McFarland, S. (2007). Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment: Could Participant Self-Selection Have Led to the Cruelty? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33 (5), pp. 603-614.
Lurigio, A. J. (2009). The Rotten Barrel Spoils the Apples: How Situational Factors Contribute to Detention Officer Abuse Toward Inmates: A Review of The Lucifer Effect, by Philip Zimbardo. The Prison Journal, 89 (1 suppl), pp. 70S-80S.
Zimbardo, P.G. (2008). The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. Random House Trade Paperbacks.