The Terrible Moral of the Stanford Prison Experiment: Power Corrupts — Even When It’s Only Pretend

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Stanford Main Quad at night with overlay of Auguste Rodin, The Burghers of Calais at Stanford University and Prison Experiment sign. Photo credit: Jonathan Gelbart / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0), Allie_Caulfield / Flickr (CC BY 2.0), Eric E Castro / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
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What would you do if you were put into a gloomy prison cell 6 by 9 feet with two other people — just as part of an experiment — designed to last 14 days? Would you react as if the situation were real? Or would knowing it was only an experiment make a difference? Would you just wait it out, assuming that surely nothing really bad will happen to you, and knowing that you will soon be free?

And what if, instead, you were given the role of a prison guard, and put in a room across from “your prisoners” as part of the experiment? Would you assume a dominant role in the spirit of play-acting?

The experiment had to be stopped in just six days. The subjects of the experiment, all mentally and physically healthy students, were perfectly aware they were in an experiment. Yet, the “prisoners” became unstable, developed acute anxiety, or sank into deep despair.

And what happened to the “guards” is even more astounding. They became brutal and abusive — for real — as if something evil inside them came alive.

This was the Stanford Prison Experiment, and it was designed by Philip Zimbardo, PhD. It is no wonder he named his book on the experiment, “The Lucifer Effect.”

Now, imagine how these circumstances — either being a prisoner or being a guard — affect people in real life.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Faces (Jim Swinson / Flickr Public Domain Mark 1.0), Prison Experiment sign (Eric E Castro / FlickrCC BY 2.0)

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6 responses to “The Terrible Moral of the Stanford Prison Experiment: Power Corrupts — Even When It’s Only Pretend”

  1. Carolyn Lee says:

    This experiment was seriously flawed and the results don’t mean much. The researcher put an ad in the newspaper for people to take part, so the subjects of the experiment had chosen to do it. No one knows how many people read the ad but chose not to do it. It seems to me that people signing up to be restrained and maybe physically abused and to get paid for it aren’t the average guy, so claims that this is how the average guy would act in such a situation remain unproven. What was proven is that people who want to be in these vicious circumstances will play their role to extremes if not restrained by some higher authority.

    Zimbardo got a lofty position at Stanford as a result of this research, and he kept it even though someone spotted the flaw pretty quickly and pointed it out to everyone else. Unfortunately, his original claim as to its meaning has stayed with the popular press.

    • james warren says:

      Many see ads for employment in our prison system and feel like turning the page. The framework of this experiment should be kept in mind and the details within it need to be bracketed apart for a while. This just makes more sense to me. The law enforcement’s “thin blue line” is being revealed as the dangerous authoritarianism, obedience-based effect of power politics. Prisons, I have concluded, are no different. There is in Plato’s writings a story called “The Myth of Gyges” about a figure who found a ring that, when worn, renders one invisible. Basically, the question was “How do you behave if you knew that nobody would find out?

    • Carolyn Lee says:

      I agree with you, James, because what you say echoes what I’ve been reading in the media all these years about prison life. And also because I once visited a high-security prison just before it was opened for business and realized (1) I would turn into a volatile bundle of angry nerves if I had to live as a prisoner in a place like that, and (2) it would be too easy to become mean if I were an employee there. It was obviously designed to bring out the worst in everyone there no matter how strongly they tried to resist. Building and operating such a place is a crime against humanity… but I digress.

      My comment was only about the research methodology, not whether prisons are as bad as we think they are. Zimbardo’s experiment did not prove anything because his methodology, being flawed, negated the experiment’s validity. The experiment cannot be re-done without the flaw because it would be unethical to put the average person in that situation without their prior knowledge and consent, as validity requires. If it could be, I think it would prove what he set out to prove, but my opinion is only conjecture, not research-level proof.

      I think it is irresponsible of the media to keep repeating the story of what the experiment ‘proves’. What it indicates in various directions is revealing enough to justify fully accurate reporting, though Stanford wouldn’t like having its mistakes exposed.

    • james warren says:

      I see a difference between “assent” and “knowledge.” I am fully accountable for my own wrong-headedness, singular focus and hypocrisy, but I still don’t understand how you can have the idea that his experiment did not prove “anything”?

      Really? ‘Anything ‘? Kind of hard for me to believe, but like I said I could very well be way off base.

      But don’t we have to both admit that it obviously proved “something” to many observers, no matter how it was “interpreted”?

      I don’t know if you have heard of the Miligram (?) Experiment.

      It seems to “prove” something similar about authoritarian, obedience-based frameworks and most people seemed to take it for what it apparently purported to be. In the last few decades, there were similar kinds of objections made to the experimenter’s methodology. But in the here and now, as far as I have been able to determine, the original theoretical conclusions remain sound.

    • Carolyn Lee says:

      James, proving something in common sense terms is one thing, and proving it scientifically is another. Because Zimbardo didn’t use the scientific method exactly, nothing was proven as the scientific method defines proof. Lots of things were indicated, or looked as if they might be true, and I think are true to some extent for everybody. But they aren’t yet scientifically proven. (Look up ‘scientific method’ online. It is a process with set rules to follow.)

      There is a lot science could do to prove the damage prison life does to everybody there, such as assessing what people did and how they felt about it before and after their prison experiences. This isn’t as reliable as experimentation, but it is believable and scientifically acceptable.

      It is interesting to me that the media keeps hauling out Zimbardo and not reporting on any more recent, properly done research — if there is any. And if there is not, I’d guess it’s because the prison industry doesn’t want the public to know the truth.

    • james warren says:

      Thanks again for your posts/comments!