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The Stanford Prison Experiment: A Lesson on Human Behavior

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Finn is a clinician with a Master's in Social Work from CSU Bakersfield. He also has a Master's in Library Science.

The Stanford prison experiment showed us how easily a little bit of power can go to someone's head.

The Stanford prison experiment showed us how easily a little bit of power can go to someone's head.

The Experiment

In August of 1971, professor Phillip Zimbardo conducted an experiment in which a mock prison was created. A selected group of students was used to portray the guards, and another set was supposed to act as inmates.

The main goals of the study were to determine the effects of power on those who had it and the results it had on the population which was in control of the authority figures.

The study was funded by the United States Office of Naval Research.

When given full authority, the "guards" exhibited tendencies of control and engaged in various forms of abuse, including psychological torture.

The implications of this study say a lot about behavior in social groups. Whether they are in a school or neighborhood clique, if certain individuals are excluded, or if there are escalations between two political powers, the study reveals many truths about human nature.

Although there are many critics of the study who cite the population used as well as the methods, I think anyone who looks at what happened will recognize similar tendencies and practices in the world around them.

The experiment in the "jail" was supposed to last two weeks. It was shut down for safety reasons after just six days.

The Early 1970s

The time in which the Stanford experiment was done was a fairly volatile period where there was much turmoil.

A few examples include:

  • 1965: Watts Riots in Los Angeles
  • 1971: (September) Attica Prison Riots
  • 1972: Munich Olympics Terror
  • 1973: U.S. Oil Crisis
  • 1974: Patty Hearst

Of course, there was the Vietnam War, Nixon, and many other social changes going on in the country and throughout the world.

The 1970s were a tumultuous time in America.

The 1970s were a tumultuous time in America.


Even though the experiment seemed to have the prison environment as its focus, it said a lot about human nature in general. Prisons can be seen as a microcosm of the society in which they are located. The psychology of the incarcerated however, is often much more magnified, and moves at a faster pace, but still reflect authentic human responses.

The experiment demonstrated that power corrupts and as you may all have heard, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Those who were given the position of authority quickly took advantage or their role while most of those who were in the position of inmate, quickly submitted.

If you think about some historical events - the Holocaust for example, you can see situations where a group of people gained control and used their authority with little disregard for humanity. Others who participated simply responded that "they were just following orders".

Concepts such as groupthink come to mind when considering human behavior where deviation from a perceived and established norm is discouraged, even in everyday normal situations.

Individuality, autonomy, and sometimes sensibility can be lost in groups.

Individuality, autonomy, and sometimes sensibility can be lost in groups.

Cognitive Dissonance

One might ask then, in a situation that is obviously unhealthy, how can one respond so indifferently when there is a conflict with an observed action and your personal values? In other words, how could the other inmates stand around and watch the abuses go on without speaking up. From the inmate's point of view, there is also fear of retaliation and that the abuse will be turned on them.

How can one have a developed character and engage in behaviors that contradict your personal ethics? How could the guards actually turn into abusers or how could some stand around, while their cronies engaged in behaviors that were inappropriate?


Are We All Hypocritical to an Extent?

Cognitive Dissonance describes a situation in which there is an internalized conflict which causes duress.

For example, a person who says they wish to be healthy but continuously engage in the practice of consuming fried food or other substances such as sweets.

Someone in this situation might say to themselves one of the following:

a) I recognize that I eat unhealthy foods and troubles me and I will stop.

b) I recognize the foods that I sometimes eat are unhealthy but I really don't think they affect me or I don't care.

c) The foods I eat are really not unhealthy because the studies are inaccurate.

In short, in order to create a more harmonious situation, either the behavior has to change or the perception has to change.

For many people who engage in bad habits - poor diet, smoking, procrastination - a rationalization takes place that falls into either B or C above.

It seems to me that in situations of power conflict and where there is a need for conformity, that the latter two will take precedence.

The response then by the passive observers would seem to be one that says something along the lines of "the abuse is not that bad".

Sometimes the truth hurts.

Sometimes the truth hurts.

Things are easier when you practice acceptance.

Things are easier when you practice acceptance.

Alliance With the Enemy

While it might be an extreme measure to claim that the inmates of a penal institution will feel an alliance with their captors as a survival mechanism, the psychology behind the Stockholm Syndrome can explain situations where one would be reluctant to stand up to an adversary.

Those in the Stanford experiment who might have found some of the actions of the more abusive guards objectionable, would have probably found it easier to adhere than to object. Think of the saying, "If you can't beat them, join them". Sometimes it is easier to acquiesce than it is to object.

This can be true on the playground, at the water cooler, in the mall or in a personal relationship.

Sometimes people just turn their heads because it is easier to go to the same dreary job day after day than to go out on your own.

(Thankfully I have a great job right now, one of the best ever...)

Fight, flight, or friend

Fight, flight, or friend

The Mind Is Malleable

These are just a few thoughts I have concerning certain aspects of the Stanford experiment that can be explained by psychology. I'm interested in social theories and why people behave the way they do. I don't think contemporary mental science has all the answers because the mind is malleable and easily influenced by environment.


Was the Zimbardo Experiment Biased?

Some will say that the Zimbardo experiment only focused on a certain class of people. Young males etc...

Does that mean that other groups do not behave or will not respond in similar manners?

No I think that what happened at the University exemplifies typical human nature. Think of ideas such as mean girls, toxic work environments, the way neighborhoods are formed and examples you read about in the papers.

Some modern scenarios like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay for example.

In short, everything is biased in some way, yes. But so is our contemporary knee jerk reaction to anything.

Especially something at revealing as what this experiment said about us.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2018 Finn