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Assessing Social Science Research Ethics and Integrity pp 183–210 Cite as

The Stanford Prison Experiment: The Power of the Situation

  • Harry Perlstadt   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-0233-0463 3  
  • First Online: 20 January 2024

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Part of the book series: Clinical Sociology: Research and Practice ((CSRP))

Philip Zimbardo is best known for his 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE). Early in his career, he conducted experiments in the psychology of deindividualization, in which a person in a group or crowd no longer acts as a responsible individual but is swept along and participates in antisocial actions. After moving to Stanford University, he began to focus on institutional power over the individual in group settings, such as long-term care facilities for the elderly and prisons. His research proposal for a simulated prison was approved by the Stanford University Human Subjects Research Review Committee in July 1971. He built a mock prison in the basement of the University’s psychology building and recruited college-aged male subjects to play prisoners and guards. The study began on Sunday, August 8th, and was to run for 2 weeks but ended on Friday morning August 13th. In less than a week, several of the mock guards hazed and brutalized the mock prisoners, some of whom found ways of coping, while others exhibited symptoms of mental breakdown.

The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons. — attributed to Fyodor Dostoevsky, The House of the Dead

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I wish to thank Chris Herrera, Jonathan K. Rosen, David Segal and Ruth Spivak for their comments on this chapter.

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Perlstadt, H. (2023). The Stanford Prison Experiment: The Power of the Situation. In: Assessing Social Science Research Ethics and Integrity. Clinical Sociology: Research and Practice. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-34538-8_8

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Stanford Prison Experiment

  • Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Experiment

About the Stanford Prison Experiment

Carried out August 15-21, 1971 in the basement of Jordan Hall, the Stanford Prison Experiment set out to examine the psychological effects of authority and powerlessness in a prison environment. The study, led by psychology professor Philip G. Zimbardo, recruited Stanford students using a local newspaper ad. Twenty-four students were carefully screened and randomly assigned into groups of prisoners and guards. The experiment, which was scheduled to last 1-2 weeks, ultimately had to be terminated on only the 6th day as the experiment escalated out of hand when the prisoners were forced to endure cruel and dehumanizing abuse at the hands of their peers. The experiment showed, in Dr. Zimbardo’s words, how “ordinary college students could do terrible things.”

This exhibit includes documentation of the experiment, including images and audiovisual recordings, that some viewers may find disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.

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Stanford Prison Experiment: Zimbardo’s Famous Study

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Editor-in-Chief for Simply Psychology

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Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

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On This Page:

  • The experiment was conducted in 1971 by psychologist Philip Zimbardo to examine situational forces versus dispositions in human behavior.
  • 24 young, healthy, psychologically normal men were randomly assigned to be “prisoners” or “guards” in a simulated prison environment.
  • The experiment had to be terminated after only 6 days due to the extreme, pathological behavior emerging in both groups. The situational forces overwhelmed the dispositions of the participants.
  • Pacifist young men assigned as guards began behaving sadistically, inflicting humiliation and suffering on the prisoners. Prisoners became blindly obedient and allowed themselves to be dehumanized.
  • The principal investigator, Zimbardo, was also transformed into a rigid authority figure as the Prison Superintendent.
  • The experiment demonstrated the power of situations to alter human behavior dramatically. Even good, normal people can do evil things when situational forces push them in that direction.

Zimbardo and his colleagues (1973) were interested in finding out whether the brutality reported among guards in American prisons was due to the sadistic personalities of the guards (i.e., dispositional) or had more to do with the prison environment (i.e., situational).

For example, prisoners and guards may have personalities that make conflict inevitable, with prisoners lacking respect for law and order and guards being domineering and aggressive.

Alternatively, prisoners and guards may behave in a hostile manner due to the rigid power structure of the social environment in prisons.

Zimbardo predicted the situation made people act the way they do rather than their disposition (personality).

zimbardo guards

To study people’s roles in prison situations, Zimbardo converted a basement of the Stanford University psychology building into a mock prison.

He advertised asking for volunteers to participate in a study of the psychological effects of prison life.

The 75 applicants who answered the ad were given diagnostic interviews and personality tests to eliminate candidates with psychological problems, medical disabilities, or a history of crime or drug abuse.

24 men judged to be the most physically & mentally stable, the most mature, & the least involved in antisocial behaviors were chosen to participate.

The participants did not know each other prior to the study and were paid $15 per day to take part in the experiment.

guard

Participants were randomly assigned to either the role of prisoner or guard in a simulated prison environment. There were two reserves, and one dropped out, finally leaving ten prisoners and 11 guards.

Prisoners were treated like every other criminal, being arrested at their own homes, without warning, and taken to the local police station. They were fingerprinted, photographed and ‘booked.’

Then they were blindfolded and driven to the psychology department of Stanford University, where Zimbardo had had the basement set out as a prison, with barred doors and windows, bare walls and small cells. Here the deindividuation process began.

When the prisoners arrived at the prison they were stripped naked, deloused, had all their personal possessions removed and locked away, and were given prison clothes and bedding. They were issued a uniform, and referred to by their number only.

zimbardo prison

The use of ID numbers was a way to make prisoners feel anonymous. Each prisoner had to be called only by his ID number and could only refer to himself and the other prisoners by number.

Their clothes comprised a smock with their number written on it, but no underclothes. They also had a tight nylon cap to cover their hair, and a locked chain around one ankle.

All guards were dressed in identical uniforms of khaki, and they carried a whistle around their neck and a billy club borrowed from the police. Guards also wore special sunglasses, to make eye contact with prisoners impossible.

Three guards worked shifts of eight hours each (the other guards remained on call). Guards were instructed to do whatever they thought was necessary to maintain law and order in the prison and to command the respect of the prisoners. No physical violence was permitted.

Zimbardo observed the behavior of the prisoners and guards (as a researcher), and also acted as a prison warden.

Within a very short time both guards and prisoners were settling into their new roles, with the guards adopting theirs quickly and easily.

Asserting Authority

Within hours of beginning the experiment, some guards began to harass prisoners. At 2:30 A.M. prisoners were awakened from sleep by blasting whistles for the first of many “counts.”

The counts served as a way to familiarize the prisoners with their numbers. More importantly, they provided a regular occasion for the guards to exercise control over the prisoners.

prisoner counts

The prisoners soon adopted prisoner-like behavior too. They talked about prison issues a great deal of the time. They ‘told tales’ on each other to the guards.

They started taking the prison rules very seriously, as though they were there for the prisoners’ benefit and infringement would spell disaster for all of them. Some even began siding with the guards against prisoners who did not obey the rules.

Physical Punishment

The prisoners were taunted with insults and petty orders, they were given pointless and boring tasks to accomplish, and they were generally dehumanized.

Push-ups were a common form of physical punishment imposed by the guards. One of the guards stepped on the prisoners” backs while they did push-ups, or made other prisoners sit on the backs of fellow prisoners doing their push-ups.

prisoner push ups

Asserting Independence

Because the first day passed without incident, the guards were surprised and totally unprepared for the rebellion which broke out on the morning of the second day.

During the second day of the experiment, the prisoners removed their stocking caps, ripped off their numbers, and barricaded themselves inside the cells by putting their beds against the door.

The guards called in reinforcements. The three guards who were waiting on stand-by duty came in and the night shift guards voluntarily remained on duty.

Putting Down the Rebellion

The guards retaliated by using a fire extinguisher which shot a stream of skin-chilling carbon dioxide, and they forced the prisoners away from the doors. Next, the guards broke into each cell, stripped the prisoners naked and took the beds out.

The ringleaders of the prisoner rebellion were placed into solitary confinement. After this, the guards generally began to harass and intimidate the prisoners.

Special Privileges

One of the three cells was designated as a “privilege cell.” The three prisoners least involved in the rebellion were given special privileges. The guards gave them back their uniforms and beds and allowed them to wash their hair and brush their teeth.

Privileged prisoners also got to eat special food in the presence of the other prisoners who had temporarily lost the privilege of eating. The effect was to break the solidarity among prisoners.

Consequences of the Rebellion

Over the next few days, the relationships between the guards and the prisoners changed, with a change in one leading to a change in the other. Remember that the guards were firmly in control and the prisoners were totally dependent on them.

As the prisoners became more dependent, the guards became more derisive towards them. They held the prisoners in contempt and let the prisoners know it. As the guards’ contempt for them grew, the prisoners became more submissive.

As the prisoners became more submissive, the guards became more aggressive and assertive. They demanded ever greater obedience from the prisoners. The prisoners were dependent on the guards for everything, so tried to find ways to please the guards, such as telling tales on fellow prisoners.

Prisoner #8612

Less than 36 hours into the experiment, Prisoner #8612 began suffering from acute emotional disturbance, disorganized thinking, uncontrollable crying, and rage.

After a meeting with the guards where they told him he was weak, but offered him “informant” status, #8612 returned to the other prisoners and said “You can”t leave. You can’t quit.”

Soon #8612 “began to act ‘crazy,’ to scream, to curse, to go into a rage that seemed out of control.” It wasn’t until this point that the psychologists realized they had to let him out.

A Visit from Parents

The next day, the guards held a visiting hour for parents and friends. They were worried that when the parents saw the state of the jail, they might insist on taking their sons home. Guards washed the prisoners, had them clean and polish their cells, fed them a big dinner and played music on the intercom.

After the visit, rumors spread of a mass escape plan. Afraid that they would lose the prisoners, the guards and experimenters tried to enlist help and facilities of the Palo Alto police department.

The guards again escalated the level of harassment, forcing them to do menial, repetitive work such as cleaning toilets with their bare hands.

Catholic Priest

Zimbardo invited a Catholic priest who had been a prison chaplain to evaluate how realistic our prison situation was. Half of the prisoners introduced themselves by their number rather than name.

The chaplain interviewed each prisoner individually. The priest told them the only way they would get out was with the help of a lawyer.

Prisoner #819

Eventually, while talking to the priest, #819 broke down and began to cry hysterically, just like two previously released prisoners had.

The psychologists removed the chain from his foot, the cap off his head, and told him to go and rest in a room that was adjacent to the prison yard. They told him they would get him some food and then take him to see a doctor.

While this was going on, one of the guards lined up the other prisoners and had them chant aloud:

“Prisoner #819 is a bad prisoner. Because of what Prisoner #819 did, my cell is a mess, Mr. Correctional Officer.”

The psychologists realized #819 could hear the chanting and went back into the room where they found him sobbing uncontrollably. The psychologists tried to get him to agree to leave the experiment, but he said he could not leave because the others had labeled him a bad prisoner.

Back to Reality

At that point, Zimbardo said, “Listen, you are not #819. You are [his name], and my name is Dr. Zimbardo. I am a psychologist, not a prison superintendent, and this is not a real prison. This is just an experiment, and those are students, not prisoners, just like you. Let’s go.”

He stopped crying suddenly, looked up and replied, “Okay, let’s go,“ as if nothing had been wrong.

An End to the Experiment

Zimbardo (1973) had intended that the experiment should run for two weeks, but on the sixth day, it was terminated, due to the emotional breakdowns of prisoners, and excessive aggression of the guards.

Christina Maslach, a recent Stanford Ph.D. brought in to conduct interviews with the guards and prisoners, strongly objected when she saw the prisoners being abused by the guards.

Filled with outrage, she said, “It’s terrible what you are doing to these boys!” Out of 50 or more outsiders who had seen our prison, she was the only one who ever questioned its morality.

Zimbardo (2008) later noted, “It wasn’t until much later that I realized how far into my prison role I was at that point — that I was thinking like a prison superintendent rather than a research psychologist.“

This led him to prioritize maintaining the experiment’s structure over the well-being and ethics involved, thereby highlighting the blurring of roles and the profound impact of the situation on human behavior.

Here’s a quote that illustrates how Philip Zimbardo, initially the principal investigator, became deeply immersed in his role as the “Stanford Prison Superintendent (April 19, 2011):

“By the third day, when the second prisoner broke down, I had already slipped into or been transformed into the role of “Stanford Prison Superintendent.” And in that role, I was no longer the principal investigator, worried about ethics. When a prisoner broke down, what was my job? It was to replace him with somebody on our standby list. And that’s what I did. There was a weakness in the study in not separating those two roles. I should only have been the principal investigator, in charge of two graduate students and one undergraduate.”
According to Zimbardo and his colleagues, the Stanford Prison Experiment revealed how people will readily conform to the social roles they are expected to play, especially if the roles are as strongly stereotyped as those of the prison guards.

Because the guards were placed in a position of authority, they began to act in ways they would not usually behave in their normal lives.

The “prison” environment was an important factor in creating the guards’ brutal behavior (none of the participants who acted as guards showed sadistic tendencies before the study).

Therefore, the findings support the situational explanation of behavior rather than the dispositional one.

Zimbardo proposed that two processes can explain the prisoner’s “final submission.”

Deindividuation may explain the behavior of the participants; especially the guards. This is a state when you become so immersed in the norms of the group that you lose your sense of identity and personal responsibility.

The guards may have been so sadistic because they did not feel what happened was down to them personally – it was a group norm. They also may have lost their sense of personal identity because of the uniform they wore.

Also, learned helplessness could explain the prisoner’s submission to the guards. The prisoners learned that whatever they did had little effect on what happened to them. In the mock prison the unpredictable decisions of the guards led the prisoners to give up responding.

After the prison experiment was terminated, Zimbardo interviewed the participants. Here’s an excerpt:

‘Most of the participants said they had felt involved and committed. The research had felt “real” to them. One guard said, “I was surprised at myself. I made them call each other names and clean the toilets out with their bare hands. I practically considered the prisoners cattle and I kept thinking I had to watch out for them in case they tried something.” Another guard said “Acting authoritatively can be fun. Power can be a great pleasure.” And another: “… during the inspection I went to Cell Two to mess up a bed which a prisoner had just made and he grabbed me, screaming that he had just made it and that he was not going to let me mess it up. He grabbed me by the throat and although he was laughing I was pretty scared. I lashed out with my stick and hit him on the chin although not very hard, and when I freed myself I became angry.”’

Most of the guards found it difficult to believe that they had behaved in the brutal ways that they had. Many said they hadn’t known this side of them existed or that they were capable of such things.

The prisoners, too, couldn’t believe that they had responded in the submissive, cowering, dependent way they had. Several claimed to be assertive types normally.

When asked about the guards, they described the usual three stereotypes that can be found in any prison: some guards were good, some were tough but fair, and some were cruel.

A further explanation for the behavior of the participants can be described in terms of reinforcement.  The escalation of aggression and abuse by the guards could be seen as being due to the positive reinforcement they received both from fellow guards and intrinsically in terms of how good it made them feel to have so much power.

Similarly, the prisoners could have learned through negative reinforcement that if they kept their heads down and did as they were told, they could avoid further unpleasant experiences.

Critical Evaluation

Ecological validity.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is criticized for lacking ecological validity in its attempt to simulate a real prison environment. Specifically, the “prison” was merely a setup in the basement of Stanford University’s psychology department.

The student “guards” lacked professional training, and the experiment’s duration was much shorter than real prison sentences. Furthermore, the participants, who were college students, didn’t reflect the diverse backgrounds typically found in actual prisons in terms of ethnicity, education, and socioeconomic status.

None had prior prison experience, and they were chosen due to their mental stability and low antisocial tendencies. Additionally, the mock prison lacked spaces for exercise or rehabilitative activities.

Demand characteristics

Demand characteristics could explain the findings of the study. Most of the guards later claimed they were simply acting. Because the guards and prisoners were playing a role, their behavior may not be influenced by the same factors which affect behavior in real life. This means the study’s findings cannot be reasonably generalized to real life, such as prison settings. I.e, the study has low ecological validity.

One of the biggest criticisms is that strong demand characteristics confounded the study. Banuazizi and Movahedi (1975) found that the majority of respondents, when given a description of the study, were able to guess the hypothesis and predict how participants were expected to behave.

This suggests participants may have simply been playing out expected roles rather than genuinely conforming to their assigned identities.

In addition, revelations by Zimbardo (2007) indicate he actively encouraged the guards to be cruel and oppressive in his orientation instructions prior to the start of the study. For example, telling them “they [the prisoners] will be able to do nothing and say nothing that we don’t permit.”

He also tacitly approved of abusive behaviors as the study progressed. This deliberate cueing of how participants should act, rather than allowing behavior to unfold naturally, indicates the study findings were likely a result of strong demand characteristics rather than insightful revelations about human behavior.

However, there is considerable evidence that the participants did react to the situation as though it was real. For example, 90% of the prisoners’ private conversations, which were monitored by the researchers, were on the prison conditions, and only 10% of the time were their conversations about life outside of the prison.

The guards, too, rarely exchanged personal information during their relaxation breaks – they either talked about ‘problem prisoners,’ other prison topics, or did not talk at all. The guards were always on time and even worked overtime for no extra pay.

When the prisoners were introduced to a priest, they referred to themselves by their prison number, rather than their first name. Some even asked him to get a lawyer to help get them out.

Fourteen years after his experience as prisoner 8612 in the Stanford Prison Experiment, Douglas Korpi, now a prison psychologist, reflected on his time and stated (Musen and Zimbardo 1992):

“The Stanford Prison Experiment was a very benign prison situation and it promotes everything a normal prison promotes — the guard role promotes sadism, the prisoner role promotes confusion and shame”.

Sample bias

The study may also lack population validity as the sample comprised US male students. The study’s findings cannot be applied to female prisons or those from other countries. For example, America is an individualist culture (where people are generally less conforming), and the results may be different in collectivist cultures (such as Asian countries).

Carnahan and McFarland (2007) have questioned whether self-selection may have influenced the results – i.e., did certain personality traits or dispositions lead some individuals to volunteer for a study of “prison life” in the first place?

All participants completed personality measures assessing: aggression, authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, narcissism, social dominance, empathy, and altruism. Participants also answered questions on mental health and criminal history to screen out any issues as per the original SPE.

Results showed that volunteers for the prison study, compared to the control group, scored significantly higher on aggressiveness, authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and social dominance. They scored significantly lower on empathy and altruism.

A follow-up role-playing study found that self-presentation biases could not explain these differences. Overall, the findings suggest that volunteering for the prison study was influenced by personality traits associated with abusive tendencies.

Zimbardo’s conclusion may be wrong

While implications for the original SPE are speculative, this lends support to a person-situation interactionist perspective, rather than a purely situational account.

It implies that certain individuals are drawn to and selected into situations that fit their personality, and that group composition can shape behavior through mutual reinforcement.

Contributions to psychology

Another strength of the study is that the harmful treatment of participants led to the formal recognition of ethical  guidelines by the American Psychological Association. Studies must now undergo an extensive review by an institutional review board (US) or ethics committee (UK) before they are implemented.

Most institutions, such as universities, hospitals, and government agencies, require a review of research plans by a panel. These boards review whether the potential benefits of the research are justifiable in light of the possible risk of physical or psychological harm.

These boards may request researchers make changes to the study’s design or procedure, or, in extreme cases, deny approval of the study altogether.

Contribution to prison policy

A strength of the study is that it has altered the way US prisons are run. For example, juveniles accused of federal crimes are no longer housed before trial with adult prisoners (due to the risk of violence against them).

However, in the 25 years since the SPE, U.S. prison policy has transformed in ways counter to SPE insights (Haney & Zimbardo, 1995):

  • Rehabilitation was abandoned in favor of punishment and containment. Prison is now seen as inflicting pain rather than enabling productive re-entry.
  • Sentencing became rigid rather than accounting for inmates’ individual contexts. Mandatory minimums and “three strikes” laws over-incarcerate nonviolent crimes.
  • Prison construction boomed, and populations soared, disproportionately affecting minorities. From 1925 to 1975, incarceration rates held steady at around 100 per 100,000. By 1995, rates tripled to over 600 per 100,000.
  • Drug offenses account for an increasing proportion of prisoners. Nonviolent drug offenses make up a large share of the increased incarceration.
  • Psychological perspectives have been ignored in policymaking. Legislators overlooked insights from social psychology on the power of contexts in shaping behavior.
  • Oversight retreated, with courts deferring to prison officials and ending meaningful scrutiny of conditions. Standards like “evolving decency” gave way to “legitimate” pain.
  • Supermax prisons proliferated, isolating prisoners in psychological trauma-inducing conditions.

The authors argue psychologists should reengage to:

  • Limit the use of imprisonment and adopt humane alternatives based on the harmful effects of prison environments
  • Assess prisons’ total environments, not just individual conditions, given situational forces interact
  • Prepare inmates for release by transforming criminogenic post-release contexts
  • Address socioeconomic risk factors, not just incarcerate individuals
  • Develop contextual prediction models vs. focusing only on static traits
  • Scrutinize prison systems independently, not just defer to officials shaped by those environments
  • Generate creative, evidence-based reforms to counter over-punitive policies

Psychology once contributed to a more humane system and can again counter the U.S. “rage to punish” with contextual insights (Haney & Zimbardo, 1998).

Evidence for situational factors

Zimbardo (1995) further demonstrates the power of situations to elicit evil actions from ordinary, educated people who likely would never have done such things otherwise. It was another situation-induced “transformation of human character.”

  • Unit 731 was a covert biological and chemical warfare research unit of the Japanese army during WWII.
  • It was led by General Shiro Ishii and involved thousands of doctors and researchers.
  • Unit 731 set up facilities near Harbin, China to conduct lethal human experimentation on prisoners, including Allied POWs.
  • Experiments involved exposing prisoners to things like plague, anthrax, mustard gas, and bullets to test biological weapons. They infected prisoners with diseases and monitored their deaths.
  • At least 3,000 prisoners died from these brutal experiments. Many were killed and dissected.
  • The doctors in Unit 731 obeyed orders unquestioningly and conducted these experiments in the name of “medical science.”
  • After the war, the vast majority of doctors who participated faced no punishment and went on to have prestigious careers. This was largely covered up by the U.S. in exchange for data.
  • It shows how normal, intelligent professionals can be led by situational forces to systematically dehumanize victims and conduct incredibly cruel and lethal experiments on people.
  • Even healers trained to preserve life used their expertise to destroy lives when the situational forces compelled obedience, nationalism, and wartime enmity.

Evidence for an interactionist approach

The results are also relevant for explaining abuses by American guards at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

An interactionist perspective recognizes that volunteering for roles as prison guards attracts those already prone to abusive tendencies, which are intensified by the prison context.

This counters a solely situationist view of good people succumbing to evil situational forces.

Ethical Issues

The study has received many ethical criticisms, including lack of fully informed consent by participants as Zimbardo himself did not know what would happen in the experiment (it was unpredictable). Also, the prisoners did not consent to being “arrested” at home. The prisoners were not told partly because final approval from the police wasn’t given until minutes before the participants decided to participate, and partly because the researchers wanted the arrests to come as a surprise. However, this was a breach of the ethics of Zimbardo’s own contract that all of the participants had signed.

Protection of Participants

Participants playing the role of prisoners were not protected from psychological harm, experiencing incidents of humiliation and distress. For example, one prisoner had to be released after 36 hours because of uncontrollable bursts of screaming, crying, and anger.

Here’s a quote from Philip G. Zimbardo, taken from an interview on the Stanford Prison Experiment’s 40th anniversary (April 19, 2011):

“In the Stanford prison study, people were stressed, day and night, for 5 days, 24 hours a day. There’s no question that it was a high level of stress because five of the boys had emotional breakdowns, the first within 36 hours. Other boys that didn’t have emotional breakdowns were blindly obedient to corrupt authority by the guards and did terrible things to each other. And so it is no question that that was unethical. You can’t do research where you allow people to suffer at that level.”
“After the first one broke down, we didn’t believe it. We thought he was faking. There was actually a rumor he was faking to get out. He was going to bring his friends in to liberate the prison. And/or we believed our screening procedure was inadequate, [we believed] that he had some mental defect that we did not pick up. At that point, by the third day, when the second prisoner broke down, I had already slipped into or been transformed into the role of “Stanford Prison Superintendent.” And in that role, I was no longer the principal investigator, worried about ethics.”

However, in Zimbardo’s defense, the emotional distress experienced by the prisoners could not have been predicted from the outset.

Approval for the study was given by the Office of Naval Research, the Psychology Department, and the University Committee of Human Experimentation.

This Committee also did not anticipate the prisoners’ extreme reactions that were to follow. Alternative methodologies were looked at that would cause less distress to the participants but at the same time give the desired information, but nothing suitable could be found.

Withdrawal 

Although guards were explicitly instructed not to physically harm prisoners at the beginning of the Stanford Prison Experiment, they were allowed to induce feelings of boredom, frustration, arbitrariness, and powerlessness among the inmates.

This created a pervasive atmosphere where prisoners genuinely believed and even reinforced among each other, that they couldn’t leave the experiment until their “sentence” was completed, mirroring the inescapability of a real prison.

Even though two participants (8612 and 819) were released early, the impact of the environment was so profound that prisoner 416, reflecting on the experience two months later, described it as a “prison run by psychologists rather than by the state.”

Extensive group and individual debriefing sessions were held, and all participants returned post-experimental questionnaires several weeks, then several months later, and then at yearly intervals. Zimbardo concluded there were no lasting negative effects.

Zimbardo also strongly argues that the benefits gained from our understanding of human behavior and how we can improve society should outbalance the distress caused by the study.

However, it has been suggested that the US Navy was not so much interested in making prisons more human and were, in fact, more interested in using the study to train people in the armed services to cope with the stresses of captivity.

Discussion Questions

What are the effects of living in an environment with no clocks, no view of the outside world, and minimal sensory stimulation?
Consider the psychological consequences of stripping, delousing, and shaving the heads of prisoners or members of the military. Whattransformations take place when people go through an experience like this?
The prisoners could have left at any time, and yet, they didn’t. Why?
After the study, how do you think the prisoners and guards felt?
If you were the experimenter in charge, would you have done this study? Would you have terminated it earlier? Would you have conducted a follow-up study?

Frequently Asked Questions

What happened to prisoner 8612 after the experiment.

Douglas Korpi, as prisoner 8612, was the first to show signs of severe distress and demanded to be released from the experiment. He was released on the second day, and his reaction to the simulated prison environment highlighted the study’s ethical issues and the potential harm inflicted on participants.

After the experiment, Douglas Korpi graduated from Stanford University and earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. He pursued a career as a psychotherapist, helping others with their mental health struggles.

Why did Zimbardo not stop the experiment?

Zimbardo did not initially stop the experiment because he became too immersed in his dual role as the principal investigator and the prison superintendent, causing him to overlook the escalating abuse and distress among participants.

It was only after an external observer, Christina Maslach, raised concerns about the participants’ well-being that Zimbardo terminated the study.

What happened to the guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment?

In the Stanford Prison Experiment, the guards exhibited abusive and authoritarian behavior, using psychological manipulation, humiliation, and control tactics to assert dominance over the prisoners. This ultimately led to the study’s early termination due to ethical concerns.

What did Zimbardo want to find out?

Zimbardo aimed to investigate the impact of situational factors and power dynamics on human behavior, specifically how individuals would conform to the roles of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison environment.

He wanted to explore whether the behavior displayed in prisons was due to the inherent personalities of prisoners and guards or the result of the social structure and environment of the prison itself.

What were the results of the Stanford Prison Experiment?

The results of the Stanford Prison Experiment showed that situational factors and power dynamics played a significant role in shaping participants’ behavior. The guards became abusive and authoritarian, while the prisoners became submissive and emotionally distressed.

The experiment revealed how quickly ordinary individuals could adopt and internalize harmful behaviors due to their assigned roles and the environment.

Banuazizi, A., & Movahedi, S. (1975). Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison: A methodological analysis. American Psychologist, 30 , 152-160.

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, 603-614.

Drury, S., Hutchens, S. A., Shuttlesworth, D. E., & White, C. L. (2012). Philip G. Zimbardo on his career and the Stanford Prison Experiment’s 40th anniversary.  History of Psychology ,  15 (2), 161.

Griggs, R. A., & Whitehead, G. I., III. (2014). Coverage of the Stanford Prison Experiment in introductory social psychology textbooks. Teaching of Psychology, 41 , 318 –324.

Haney, C., Banks, W. C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1973). A study of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison . Naval Research Review , 30, 4-17.

Haney, C., & Zimbardo, P. (1998). The past and future of U.S. prison policy: Twenty-five years after the Stanford Prison Experiment.  American Psychologist, 53 (7), 709–727.

Musen, K. & Zimbardo, P. (1992) (DVD) Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Experiment Documentary.

Zimbardo, P. G. (Consultant, On-Screen Performer), Goldstein, L. (Producer), & Utley, G. (Correspondent). (1971, November 26). Prisoner 819 did a bad thing: The Stanford Prison Experiment [Television series episode]. In L. Goldstein (Producer), Chronolog. New York, NY: NBC-TV.

Zimbardo, P. G. (1973). On the ethics of intervention in human psychological research: With special reference to the Stanford prison experiment.  Cognition ,  2 (2), 243-256.

Zimbardo, P. G. (1995). The psychology of evil: A situationist perspective on recruiting good people to engage in anti-social acts.  Japanese Journal of Social Psychology ,  11 (2), 125-133.

Zimbardo, P.G. (2007). The Lucifer effect: Understanding how good people turn evil . New York, NY: Random House.

Further Information

  • Reicher, S., & Haslam, S. A. (2006). Rethinking the psychology of tyranny: The BBC prison study. The British Journal of Social Psychology, 45 , 1.
  • Coverage of the Stanford Prison Experiment in introductory psychology textbooks
  • The Stanford Prison Experiment Official Website

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The Real Lesson of the Stanford Prison Experiment

research paper on stanford prison experiment

By Maria Konnikova

A scene from “The Stanford Prison Experiment” a new movie inspired by the famous but widely misunderstood study.

On the morning of August 17, 1971, nine young men in the Palo Alto area received visits from local police officers. While their neighbors looked on, the men were arrested for violating Penal Codes 211 and 459 (armed robbery and burglary), searched, handcuffed, and led into the rear of a waiting police car. The cars took them to a Palo Alto police station, where the men were booked, fingerprinted, moved to a holding cell, and blindfolded. Finally, they were transported to the Stanford County Prison—also known as the Stanford University psychology department.

They were willing participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment, one of the most controversial studies in the history of social psychology. (It’s the subject of a new film of the same name—a drama, not a documentary—starring Billy Crudup, of “Almost Famous,” as the lead investigator, Philip Zimbardo. It opens July 17th.) The study subjects, middle-class college students, had answered a questionnaire about their family backgrounds, physical- and mental-health histories, and social behavior, and had been deemed “normal”; a coin flip divided them into prisoners and guards. According to the lore that’s grown up around the experiment, the guards, with little to no instruction, began humiliating and psychologically abusing the prisoners within twenty-four hours of the study’s start. The prisoners, in turn, became submissive and depersonalized, taking the abuse and saying little in protest. The behavior of all involved was so extreme that the experiment, which was meant to last two weeks, was terminated after six days.

Less than a decade earlier, the Milgram obedience study had shown that ordinary people, if encouraged by an authority figure, were willing to shock their fellow-citizens with what they believed to be painful and potentially lethal levels of electricity. To many, the Stanford experiment underscored those findings, revealing the ease with which regular people, if given too much power, could transform into ruthless oppressors. Today, more than forty-five years later, many look to the study to make sense of events like the behavior of the guards at Abu Ghraib and America’s epidemic of police brutality. The Stanford Prison Experiment is cited as evidence of the atavistic impulses that lurk within us all; it’s said to show that, with a little nudge, we could all become tyrants.

And yet the lessons of the Stanford Prison Experiment aren’t so clear-cut. From the beginning, the study has been haunted by ambiguity. Even as it suggests that ordinary people harbor ugly potentialities, it also testifies to the way our circumstances shape our behavior. Was the study about our individual fallibility, or about broken institutions? Were its findings about prisons, specifically, or about life in general? What did the Stanford Prison Experiment really show?

The appeal of the experiment has a lot to do with its apparently simple setup: prisoners, guards, a fake jail, and some ground rules. But, in reality, the Stanford County Prison was a heavily manipulated environment, and the guards and prisoners acted in ways that were largely predetermined by how their roles were presented. To understand the meaning of the experiment, you have to understand that it wasn’t a blank slate; from the start, its goal was to evoke the experience of working and living in a brutal jail.

From the first, the guards’ priorities were set by Zimbardo. In a presentation to his Stanford colleagues shortly after the study’s conclusion, he described the procedures surrounding each prisoner’s arrival: each man was stripped and searched, “deloused,” and then given a uniform—a numbered gown, which Zimbardo called a “dress,” with a heavy bolted chain near the ankle, loose-fitting rubber sandals, and a cap made from a woman’s nylon stocking. “Real male prisoners don't wear dresses,” Zimbardo explained, “but real male prisoners, we have learned, do feel humiliated, do feel emasculated, and we thought we could produce the same effects very quickly by putting men in a dress without any underclothes.” The stocking caps were in lieu of shaving the prisoner’s heads. (The guards wore khaki uniforms and were given whistles, nightsticks, and mirrored sunglasses inspired by a prison guard in the movie “Cool Hand Luke.”)

Often, the guards operated without explicit, moment-to-moment instructions. But that didn’t mean that they were fully autonomous: Zimbardo himself took part in the experiment, playing the role of the prison superintendent. (The prison’s “warden” was also a researcher.) /Occasionally, disputes between prisoner and guards got out of hand, violating an explicit injunction against physical force that both prisoners and guards had read prior to enrolling in the study. When the “superintendent” and “warden” overlooked these incidents, the message to the guards was clear: all is well; keep going as you are. The participants knew that an audience was watching, and so a lack of feedback could be read as tacit approval. And the sense of being watched may also have encouraged them to perform. Dave Eshelman, one of the guards, recalled that he “consciously created” his guard persona. “I was in all kinds of drama productions in high school and college. It was something I was very familiar with: to take on another personality before you step out on the stage,” Eshelman said. In fact, he continued, “I was kind of running my own experiment in there, by saying, ‘How far can I push these things and how much abuse will these people take before they say, ‘Knock it off?’ ”

Other, more subtle factors also shaped the experiment. It’s often said that the study participants were ordinary guys—and they were, indeed, determined to be “normal” and healthy by a battery of tests. But they were also a self-selected group who responded to a newspaper advertisement seeking volunteers for “a psychological study of prison life.” In a 2007 study, the psychologists Thomas Carnahan and Sam McFarland asked whether that wording itself may have stacked the odds. They recreated the original ad, and then ran a separate ad omitting the phrase “prison life.” They found that the people who responded to the two ads scored differently on a set of psychological tests. Those who thought that they would be participating in a prison study had significantly higher levels of aggressiveness, authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and social dominance, and they scored lower on measures of empathy and altruism.

Moreover, even within that self-selected sample, behavioral patterns were far from homogeneous. Much of the study’s cachet depends on the idea that the students responded en masse, giving up their individual identities to become submissive “prisoners” and tyrannical “guards.” But, in fact, the participants responded to the prison environment in all sorts of ways. While some guard shifts were especially cruel, others remained humane. Many of the supposedly passive prisoners rebelled. Richard Yacco, a prisoner, remembered “resisting what one guard was telling me to do and being willing to go into solitary confinement. As prisoners, we developed solidarity—we realized that we could join together and do passive resistance and cause some problems.”

What emerges from these details isn’t a perfectly lucid photograph but an ambiguous watercolor. While it’s true that some guards and prisoners behaved in alarming ways, it’s also the case that their environment was designed to encourage—and, in some cases, to require—those behaviors. Zimbardo himself has always been forthcoming about the details and the nature of his prison experiment: he thoroughly explained the setup in his original study and, in an early write-up , in which the experiment was described in broad strokes only, he pointed out that only “about a third of the guards became tyrannical in their arbitrary use of power.” (That’s about four people in total.) So how did the myth of the Stanford Prison Experiment—“Lord of the Flies” in the psych lab—come to diverge so profoundly from the reality?

In part, Zimbardo’s earliest statements about the experiment are to blame. In October, 1971, soon after the study’s completion—and before a single methodologically and analytically rigorous result had been published—Zimbardo was asked to testify before Congress about prison reform. His dramatic testimony , even as it clearly explained how the experiment worked, also allowed listeners to overlook how coercive the environment really was. He described the study as “an attempt to understand just what it means psychologically to be a prisoner or a prison guard.” But he also emphasized that the students in the study had been “the cream of the crop of this generation,” and said that the guards were given no specific instructions, and left free to make “up their own rules for maintaining law, order, and respect.” In explaining the results, he said that the “majority” of participants found themselves “no longer able to clearly differentiate between role-playing and self,” and that, in the six days the study took to unfold, “the experience of imprisonment undid, although temporarily, a lifetime of learning; human values were suspended, self-concepts were challenged, and the ugliest, most base, pathological side of human nature surfaced.” In describing another, related study and its implications for prison life, he said that “the mere act of assigning labels to people, calling some people prisoners and others guards, is sufficient to elicit pathological behavior.”

Zimbardo released video to NBC, which ran a feature on November 26, 1971. An article ran in the Times Magazine in April of 1973. In various ways, these accounts reiterated the claim that relatively small changes in circumstances could turn the best and brightest into monsters or depersonalized serfs. By the time Zimbardo published a formal paper about the study , in a 1973 issue of the International Journal of Crim__i__nology and Penology , a streamlined and unequivocal version of events had become entrenched in the national consciousness—so much so that a 1975 methodological critique fell largely on deaf ears.

Forty years later, Zimbardo still doesn’t shy away from popular attention. He served as a consultant on the new film, which follows his original study in detail, relying on direct transcripts from the experimental recordings and taking few dramatic liberties. In many ways, the film is critical of the study: Crudup plays Zimbardo as an overzealous researcher overstepping his bounds, trying to create a very specific outcome among the students he observes. The filmmakers even underscore the flimsiness of the experimental design, inserting characters who point out that Zimbardo is not a disinterested observer. They highlight a real-life conversation in which another psychologist asks Zimbardo whether he has an “independent variable.” In describing the study to his Stanford colleagues shortly after it ended, Zimbardo recalled that conversation: “To my surprise, I got really angry at him,” he said. “The security of my men and the stability of my prison was at stake, and I have to contend with this bleeding-heart, liberal, academic, effete dingdong whose only concern was for a ridiculous thing like an independent variable. The next thing he’d be asking me about was rehabilitation programs, the dummy! It wasn’t until sometime later that I realized how far into the experiment I was at that point.”

In a broad sense, the film reaffirms the opinion of John Mark, one of the guards, who, looking back, has said that Zimbardo’s interpretation of events was too shaped by his expectations to be meaningful: “He wanted to be able to say that college students, people from middle-class backgrounds ... will turn on each other just because they’re given a role and given power. Based on my experience, and what I saw and what I felt, I think that was a real stretch.”

If the Stanford Prison Experiment had simulated a less brutal environment, would the prisoners and guards have acted differently? In December, 2001 , two psychologists, Stephen Reicher and Alexander Haslam, tried to find out. They worked with the documentaries unit of the BBC to partially recreate Zimbardo’s setup over the course of an eight-day experiment. Their guards also had uniforms, and were given latitude to dole out rewards and punishments; their prisoners were placed in three-person cells that followed the layout of the Stanford County Jail almost exactly. The main difference was that, in this prison, the preset expectations were gone. The guards were asked to come up with rules prior to the prisoners’ arrival, and were told only to make the prison run smoothly. (The BBC Prison Study, as it came to be called, differed from the Stanford experiment in a few other ways, including prisoner dress; for a while, moreover, the prisoners were told that they could become guards through good behavior, although, on the third day, that offer was revoked, and the roles were made permanent.)

Within the first few days of the BBC study, it became clear that the guards weren’t cohering as a group. “Several guards were wary of assuming and exerting their authority,” the researchers wrote. The prisoners, on the other hand, developed a collective identity. In a change from the Stanford study, the psychologists asked each participant to complete a daily survey that measured the degree to which he felt solidarity with his group; it showed that, as the guards grew further apart, the prisoners were growing closer together. On the fourth day, three cellmates decided to test their luck. At lunchtime, one threw his plate down and demanded better food, another asked to smoke, and the third asked for medical attention for a blister on his foot. The guards became disorganized; one even offered the smoker a cigarette. Reicher and Haslam reported that, after the prisoners returned to their cells, they “literally danced with joy.” (“That was fucking sweet,” one prisoner remarked.) Soon, more prisoners began to challenge the guards. They acted out during roll call, complained about the food, and talked back. At the end of the sixth day, the three insubordinate cellmates broke out and occupied the guards’ quarters. “At this point,” the researchers wrote, “the guards’ regime was seen by all to be unworkable and at an end.”

Taken together, these two studies don’t suggest that we all have an innate capacity for tyranny or victimhood. Instead, they suggest that our behavior largely conforms to our preconceived expectations. All else being equal, we act as we think we’re expected to act—especially if that expectation comes from above. Suggest, as the Stanford setup did, that we should behave in stereotypical tough-guard fashion, and we strive to fit that role. Tell us, as the BBC experimenters did, that we shouldn’t give up hope of social mobility, and we act accordingly.

This understanding might seem to diminish the power of the Stanford Prison Experiment. But, in fact, it sharpens and clarifies the study’s meaning. Last weekend brought the tragic news of Kalief Browder’s suicide . At sixteen, Browder was arrested, in the Bronx, for allegedly stealing a backpack; after the arrest, he was imprisoned at Rikers for three years without trial . (Ultimately, the case against him was dismissed.) While at Rikers, Browder was the object of violence from both prisoners and guards, some of which was captured on video . It’s possible to think that prisons are the way they are because human nature tends toward the pathological. But the Stanford Prison Experiment suggests that extreme behavior flows from extreme institutions. Prisons aren’t blank slates. Guards do indeed self-select into their jobs, as Zimbardo’s students self-selected into a study of prison life. Like Zimbardo’s men, they are bombarded with expectations from the first and shaped by preëxisting norms and patterns of behavior. The lesson of Stanford isn’t that any random human being is capable of descending into sadism and tyranny. It’s that certain institutions and environments demand those behaviors—and, perhaps, can change them.

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The Stanford Prison Experiment

Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

research paper on stanford prison experiment

Cara Lustik is a fact-checker and copywriter.

research paper on stanford prison experiment

  • Participants
  • Setting and Procedure

Impact of the Zimbardo Prison Experiment

In 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues set out to create an experiment that looked at the impact of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. The Stanford Prison Experiment, also known as the Zimbardo Prison Experiment, went on to become one of the best-known (and controversial) in psychology's history.

The study has long been a staple in textbooks, articles, psychology classes, and even movies, but recent criticisms have called the study's scientific merits and value into question.

Purpose of the Stanford Prison Experiment

Zimbardo was a former classmate of the psychologist Stanley Milgram . Milgram is best known for his famous obedience experiment .

Zimbardo was interested in expanding upon Milgram's research. He wanted to further investigate the impact of situational variables on human behavior.

The researchers wanted to know how the participants would react when placed in a simulated prison environment.

The researchers wondered if physically and psychologically healthy people who knew they were participating in an experiment would change their behavior in a prison-like setting.

Participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment

The researchers set up a mock prison in the basement of Stanford University's psychology building. They selected 24 undergraduate students to play the roles of both prisoners and guards.

The participants were chosen from a larger group of 70 volunteers because they had no criminal background, lacked psychological issues, and had no significant medical conditions. The volunteers agreed to participate during a one to two-week period in exchange for $15 a day.

The Setting and Procedures

The simulated prison included three six-by-nine-foot prison cells. Each cell held three prisoners and included three cots.

Other rooms across from the cells were utilized for the jail guards and warden. One tiny space was designated as the solitary confinement room, and yet another small room served as the prison yard.

The 24 volunteers were then randomly assigned to either the prisoner group or the guard group. Prisoners were to remain in the mock prison 24 hours a day during the study.

Guards were assigned to work in three-man teams for eight-hour shifts. After each shift, guards were allowed to return to their homes until their next shift.

Researchers were able to observe the behavior of the prisoners and guards using hidden cameras and microphones.

Results of the Stanford Prison Experiment

So what happened in the Zimbardo experiment? While the experiment was originally slated to last 14 days, it had to be stopped after just six due to what was happening to the student participants. The guards became abusive, and the prisoners began to show signs of extreme stress and anxiety.

Some of these included:

  • While the prisoners and guards were allowed to interact in any way they wanted, the interactions were hostile or even dehumanizing.
  • The guards began to behave in ways that were aggressive and abusive toward the prisoners while the prisoners became passive and depressed.
  • Five of the prisoners began to experience severe negative emotions, including crying and acute anxiety, and had to be released from the study early.

Even the researchers themselves began to lose sight of the reality of the situation. Zimbardo, who acted as the prison warden, overlooked the abusive behavior of the jail guards until graduate student Christina Maslach voiced objections to the conditions in the simulated prison and the morality of continuing the experiment.

One possible explanation for the results of this experiment is the idea of deindividuation , which states that being part of a large group can make us more likely to perform behaviors we would otherwise not do on our own.

The experiment became famous and was widely cited in textbooks and other publications. According to Zimbardo and his colleagues, the Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated the powerful role that the situation can play in human behavior.

Because the guards were placed in a position of power, they began to behave in ways they would not usually act in their everyday lives or other situations. The prisoners, placed in a situation where they had no real control, became submissive and depressed.

In 2011, the Stanford Alumni Magazine featured a retrospective of the Stanford Prison Experiment in honor of the experiment’s 40th anniversary. The article contained interviews with several people involved, including Zimbardo and other researchers as well as some of the participants in the study.

Richard Yacco, one of the prisoners in the experiment, suggested that the experiment demonstrated the power that societal roles and expectations can play in a person's behavior.

In 2015, the experiment became the topic of a feature film titled The Stanford Prison Experiment that dramatized the events of the 1971 study.

Criticisms of the Stanford Prison Experiment

In the years since the experiment was conducted, there have been a number of critiques of the study. Some of these include:

Ethical Issues

The Stanford Prison Experiment is frequently cited as an example of unethical research. The experiment could not be replicated by researchers today because it fails to meet the standards established by numerous ethical codes, including the Ethics Code of the American Psychological Association .

Lack of Generalizability

Other critics suggest that the study lacks generalizability due to a variety of factors. The unrepresentative sample of participants (mostly white and middle-class males) makes it difficult to apply the results to a wider population.

Lack of Realism

The Zimbardo Prison Experiment is also criticized for its lack of ecological validity. Ecological validity refers to the degree of realism with which a simulated experimental setup matches the real-world situation it seeks to emulate.

While the researchers did their best to recreate a prison setting, it is simply not possible to perfectly mimic all of the environmental and situational variables of prison life. Because there may have been factors related to the setting and situation that influenced how the participants behaved, it may not really represent what might happen outside of the lab.

Recent Criticisms

More recent examination of the experiment's archives and interviews with participants have revealed major issues with the research's design, methods, and procedures that call the study's validity, value, and even authenticity into question.

These reports, including examinations of the study's records and new interviews with participants, have also cast doubt on some of the key findings and assumptions about the study.

Among the issues described:

  • One participant, for example, has suggested that he faked a breakdown so that he could leave the experiment because he was worried about failing his classes.
  • Other participants also reported altering their behavior in a way designed to "help" the experiment.
  • Evidence also suggests that the experimenters encouraged the behavior of the guards and played a role in fostering the abusive actions of the guards.

In 2019, the journal American Psychologist published an article debunking the famed experiment, detailing its lack of scientific merit, and concluding that the Stanford Prison Experiment was "an incredibly flawed study that should have died an early death."

In a statement posted on the experiment's official website, Zimbardo maintains that these criticisms do not undermine the main conclusion of the study—that situational forces can alter individual actions both in positive and negative ways.

Why was Zimbardo's experiment unethical?

Zimbardo's experiment was unethical due to a lack of fully informed consent, abuse of participants, and lack of appropriate debriefings. More recent findings suggest there were other significant ethical issues that compromise the experiment's scientific standing, including the fact that experimenters may have encouraged abusive behaviors.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is well known both in and out of the field of psychology. While the study has long been criticized for many reasons, more recent criticisms of the study's procedures shine a brighter light on the experiment's scientific shortcomings.

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Zimbardo P, Haney C, Banks WC, Jaffe D. The Stanford Prison Experiment: A simulation study of the psychology of imprisonment . Stanford University, Stanford Digital Repository, Stanford; 1971.

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American Psychological Association. Ecological validity .

Blum B. The lifespan of a lie . Medium .

Le Texier T. Debunking the Stanford Prison Experiment . American Psychologist . 2019;74(7):823-839. doi:10.1037/amp0000401

Stanford Prison Experiment. Philip Zimbardo's response to recent criticisms of the Stanford Prison Experiment .

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

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The Stanford Prison Experiment was massively influential. We just learned it was a fraud.

The most famous psychological studies are often wrong, fraudulent, or outdated. Textbooks need to catch up. 

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Rorschach test 

The Stanford Prison Experiment, one of the most famous and compelling psychological studies of all time, told us a tantalizingly simple story about human nature.

The study took paid participants and assigned them to be “inmates” or “guards” in a mock prison at Stanford University. Soon after the experiment began, the “guards” began mistreating the “prisoners,” implying evil is brought out by circumstance. The authors, in their conclusions, suggested innocent people, thrown into a situation where they have power over others, will begin to abuse that power. And people who are put into a situation where they are powerless will be driven to submission, even madness.

The Stanford Prison Experiment has been included in many, many introductory psychology textbooks and is often cited uncritically . It’s the subject of movies, documentaries, books, television shows, and congressional testimony .

But its findings were wrong. Very wrong. And not just due to its questionable ethics or lack of concrete data — but because of deceit.

A new exposé published by Medium based on previously unpublished recordings of Philip Zimbardo, the Stanford psychologist who ran the study, and interviews with his participants, offers convincing evidence that the guards in the experiment were coached to be cruel. It also shows that the experiment’s most memorable moment — of a prisoner descending into a screaming fit, proclaiming, “I’m burning up inside!” — was the result of the prisoner acting. “I took it as a kind of an improv exercise,” one of the guards told reporter Ben Blum . “I believed that I was doing what the researchers wanted me to do.”

The findings have long been subject to scrutiny — many think of them as more of a dramatic demonstration , a sort-of academic reality show, than a serious bit of science. But these new revelations incited an immediate response. “We must stop celebrating this work,” personality psychologist Simine Vazire tweeted , in response to the article . “It’s anti-scientific. Get it out of textbooks.” Many other psychologists have expressed similar sentiments.

( Update : Since this article published, the journal American Psychologist has published a thorough debunking of the Stanford Prison Experiment that goes beyond what Blum found in his piece. There’s even more evidence that the “guards” knew the results that Zimbardo wanted to produce, and were trained to meet his goals. It also provides evidence that the conclusions of the experiment were predetermined.)

Many of the classic show-stopping experiments in psychology have lately turned out to be wrong, fraudulent, or outdated. And in recent years, social scientists have begun to reckon with the truth that their old work needs a redo, the “ replication crisis .” But there’s been a lag — in the popular consciousness and in how psychology is taught by teachers and textbooks. It’s time to catch up.

Many classic findings in psychology have been reevaluated recently

research paper on stanford prison experiment

The Zimbardo prison experiment is not the only classic study that has been recently scrutinized, reevaluated, or outright exposed as a fraud. Recently, science journalist Gina Perry found that the infamous “Robbers Cave“ experiment in the 1950s — in which young boys at summer camp were essentially manipulated into joining warring factions — was a do-over from a failed previous version of an experiment, which the scientists never mentioned in an academic paper. That’s a glaring omission. It’s wrong to throw out data that refutes your hypothesis and only publicize data that supports it.

Perry has also revealed inconsistencies in another major early work in psychology: the Milgram electroshock test, in which participants were told by an authority figure to deliver seemingly lethal doses of electricity to an unseen hapless soul. Her investigations show some evidence of researchers going off the study script and possibly coercing participants to deliver the desired results. (Somewhat ironically, the new revelations about the prison experiment also show the power an authority figure — in this case Zimbardo himself and his “warden” — has in manipulating others to be cruel.)

Other studies have been reevaluated for more honest, methodological snafus. Recently, I wrote about the “marshmallow test,” a series of studies from the early ’90s that suggested the ability to delay gratification at a young age is correlated with success later in life . New research finds that if the original marshmallow test authors had a larger sample size, and greater research controls, their results would not have been the showstoppers they were in the ’90s. I can list so many more textbook psychology findings that have either not replicated, or are currently in the midst of a serious reevaluation.

  • Social priming: People who read “old”-sounding words (like “nursing home”) were more likely to walk slowly — showing how our brains can be subtly “primed” with thoughts and actions.
  • The facial feedback hypothesis: Merely activating muscles around the mouth caused people to become happier — demonstrating how our bodies tell our brains what emotions to feel.
  • Stereotype threat: Minorities and maligned social groups don’t perform as well on tests due to anxieties about becoming a stereotype themselves.
  • Ego depletion: The idea that willpower is a finite mental resource.

Alas, the past few years have brought about a reckoning for these ideas and social psychology as a whole.

Many psychological theories have been debunked or diminished in rigorous replication attempts. Psychologists are now realizing it's more likely that false positives will make it through to publication than inconclusive results. And they’ve realized that experimental methods commonly used just a few years ago aren’t rigorous enough. For instance, it used to be commonplace for scientists to publish experiments that sampled about 50 undergraduate students. Today, scientists realize this is a recipe for false positives , and strive for sample sizes in the hundreds and ideally from a more representative subject pool.

Nevertheless, in so many of these cases, scientists have moved on and corrected errors, and are still doing well-intentioned work to understand the heart of humanity. For instance, work on one of psychology’s oldest fixations — dehumanization, the ability to see another as less than human — continues with methodological rigor, helping us understand the modern-day maltreatment of Muslims and immigrants in America.

In some cases, time has shown that flawed original experiments offer worthwhile reexamination. The original Milgram experiment was flawed. But at least its study design — which brings in participants to administer shocks (not actually carried out) to punish others for failing at a memory test — is basically repeatable today with some ethical tweaks.

And it seems like Milgram’s conclusions may hold up: In a recent study, many people found demands from an authority figure to be a compelling reason to shock another. However, it’s possible, due to something known as the file-drawer effect, that failed replications of the Milgram experiment have not been published. Replication attempts at the Stanford prison study, on the other hand, have been a mess .

In science, too often, the first demonstration of an idea becomes the lasting one — in both pop culture and academia. But this isn’t how science is supposed to work at all!

Science is a frustrating, iterative process. When we communicate it, we need to get beyond the idea that a single, stunning study ought to last the test of time. Scientists know this as well, but their institutions have often discouraged them from replicating old work, instead of the pursuit of new and exciting, attention-grabbing studies. (Journalists are part of the problem too , imbuing small, insignificant studies with more importance and meaning than they’re due.)

Thankfully, there are researchers thinking very hard, and very earnestly, on trying to make psychology a more replicable, robust science. There’s even a whole Society for the Improvement of Psychological Science devoted to these issues.

Follow-up results tend to be less dramatic than original findings , but they are more useful in helping discover the truth. And it’s not that the Stanford Prison Experiment has no place in a classroom. It’s interesting as history. Psychologists like Zimbardo and Milgram were highly influenced by World War II. Their experiments were, in part, an attempt to figure out why ordinary people would fall for Nazism. That’s an important question, one that set the agenda for a huge amount of research in psychological science, and is still echoed in papers today.

Textbooks need to catch up

Psychology has changed tremendously over the past few years. Many studies used to teach the next generation of psychologists have been intensely scrutinized, and found to be in error. But troublingly, the textbooks have not been updated accordingly .

That’s the conclusion of a 2016 study in Current Psychology. “ By and large,” the study explains (emphasis mine):

introductory textbooks have difficulty accurately portraying controversial topics with care or, in some cases, simply avoid covering them at all. ... readers of introductory textbooks may be unintentionally misinformed on these topics.

The study authors — from Texas A&M and Stetson universities — gathered a stack of 24 popular introductory psych textbooks and began looking for coverage of 12 contested ideas or myths in psychology.

The ideas — like stereotype threat, the Mozart effect , and whether there’s a “narcissism epidemic” among millennials — have not necessarily been disproven. Nevertheless, there are credible and noteworthy studies that cast doubt on them. The list of ideas also included some urban legends — like the one about the brain only using 10 percent of its potential at any given time, and a debunked story about how bystanders refused to help a woman named Kitty Genovese while she was being murdered.

The researchers then rated the texts on how they handled these contested ideas. The results found a troubling amount of “biased” coverage on many of the topic areas.

research paper on stanford prison experiment

But why wouldn’t these textbooks include more doubt? Replication, after all, is a cornerstone of any science.

One idea is that textbooks, in the pursuit of covering a wide range of topics, aren’t meant to be authoritative on these individual controversies. But something else might be going on. The study authors suggest these textbook authors are trying to “oversell” psychology as a discipline, to get more undergraduates to study it full time. (I have to admit that it might have worked on me back when I was an undeclared undergraduate.)

There are some caveats to mention with the study: One is that the 12 topics the authors chose to scrutinize are completely arbitrary. “And many other potential issues were left out of our analysis,” they note. Also, the textbooks included were printed in the spring of 2012; it’s possible they have been updated since then.

Recently, I asked on Twitter how intro psychology professors deal with inconsistencies in their textbooks. Their answers were simple. Some say they decided to get rid of textbooks (which save students money) and focus on teaching individual articles. Others have another solution that’s just as simple: “You point out the wrong, outdated, and less-than-replicable sections,” Daniël Lakens , a professor at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, said. He offered a useful example of one of the slides he uses in class.

For example: pic.twitter.com/WdtbjcZ6mR — Daniël Lakens (@lakens) June 11, 2018

Anecdotally, Illinois State University professor Joe Hilgard said he thinks his students appreciate “the ‘cutting-edge’ feeling from knowing something that the textbook didn’t.” (Also, who really, earnestly reads the textbook in an introductory college course?)

I tried to frame things as four steps: 1) here's the big idea 2) here's the famous study and how it illustrates 3) here are the damning criticisms 4) here's what you can do as scholars to figure out what you believe / make a contribution to the literature — Joe Hilgard, that psych prof we all know and love. (@JoeHilgard) June 11, 2018

And it seems this type of teaching is catching on. A (not perfectly representative) recent survey of 262 psychology professors found more than half said replication issues impacted their teaching . On the other hand, 40 percent said they hadn’t. So whether students are exposed to the recent reckoning is all up to the teachers they have.

If it’s true that textbooks and teachers are still neglecting to cover replication issues, then I’d argue they are actually underselling the science. To teach the “replication crisis” is to teach students that science strives to be self-correcting. It would instill in them the value that science ought to be reproducible.

Understanding human behavior is a hard problem. Finding out the answers shouldn’t be easy. If anything, that should give students more motivation to become the generation of scientists who get it right.

“Textbooks may be missing an opportunity for myth busting,” the Current Psychology study’s authors write. That’s, ideally, what young scientist ought to learn: how to bust myths and find the truth.

Further reading: Psychology’s “replication crisis”

  • The replication crisis, explained. Psychology is currently undergoing a painful period of introspection. It will emerge stronger than before.
  • The “marshmallow test” said patience was a key to success. A new replication tells us s’more.
  • The 7 biggest problems facing science, according to 270 scientists
  • What a nerdy debate about p-values shows about science — and how to fix it
  • Science is often flawed. It’s time we embraced that.

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Social Psychology Issues: The Stanford Prison Experiment Essay

Social psychology examines how the personality, attitudes, motivations and actions of individuals are influenced by social groups. Researchers in the field have always been interested in the effects that social and environmental elements have on individuals’ perceptions and behavior.

One of the most common research studies in social psychology is that conducted by Zimbardo, Haney, and Banks in the summer of 1971. This study is commonly referred to as the “Stanford Prison Experiment” or the Zimbardo experiment. The Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 by Zimbardo proved that social context has a bigger impact on individual behavior than individual characteristics.

The Stanford Prison Experiment involved a total of twenty-four male subjects who were selected to participate in the study from a sample of seventy-five male volunteers. The participants were selected based on their psychological stability determined by a series of tests. Twelve of the participants were assigned to the role of prison guards while the remaining twelve were assigned to the role of prison inmates.

The mock prison was at the basement of the psychology center of Stanford University. Guarantee was given to the prisoners that even though some of their fundamental human rights would be violated, they would not be physically abused. However, they were not informed of what to expect. The guards on the other hand were informed about administrative processes but no training for their role was offered to them. They were however prohibited from physically abusing the inmates (Brady and Logsdon 705).

On the first day of the experiment, the prisoners were apprehended and donned in prison attire while the guards were donned in khaki uniforms and other attire that symbolized power and authority. The reason for this was to accurately simulate a real prison situation. What followed next was disturbing and something that the researchers did not expect.

Within a span of one and a half days, the guards had taken full control over the prisoners and were aggressive towards them. In some instances, the guards physically abused the prisoners. In short, the guards undoubtedly enjoyed the exercise of power and often volunteered to extend their shifts. The Stanford Prison Experiment ended prematurely on the sixth day rather than the initial two weeks planned for it. This was much to the disappointment of the guards and elation of the prisoners.

The researchers had to bring the experiment to a close because of the negative psychological effects it had on the prisoners. Indeed, several prisoners had to be sent home on the first and second day of the experiment because of severe psychological disturbances (Brady and Logsdon 706).

Despite the premature end of the experiment, what took place in those six days of the experiment was enough for the researchers to make a valuable conclusion. The researchers concluded that the degree to which average people quickly conform to roles assigned to them on the basis of differences in power supports the situational hypothesis.

This is the hypothesis that social context has a bigger impact on individual behavior than individual characteristics. The participants had taken their roles so seriously that they failed to differentiate between their selves and their roles. The participants who had been assigned to the role of inmates had indeed become inmates while those who had been assigned to the role of guards had indeed become guards and acted so. There was no line between reality and role playing (Brady and Logsdon 706).

Works Cited

Brady, Neil, and Jeanne Logsdon. “Zimbardo’s ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’ and the relevance O.” Journal of Business Ethics 7.9 (1988): 703-710.

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IvyPanda. (2024, February 29). Social Psychology Issues: The Stanford Prison Experiment. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-stanford-prison-experiment/

"Social Psychology Issues: The Stanford Prison Experiment." IvyPanda , 29 Feb. 2024, ivypanda.com/essays/the-stanford-prison-experiment/.

IvyPanda . (2024) 'Social Psychology Issues: The Stanford Prison Experiment'. 29 February.

IvyPanda . 2024. "Social Psychology Issues: The Stanford Prison Experiment." February 29, 2024. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-stanford-prison-experiment/.

1. IvyPanda . "Social Psychology Issues: The Stanford Prison Experiment." February 29, 2024. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-stanford-prison-experiment/.

Bibliography

IvyPanda . "Social Psychology Issues: The Stanford Prison Experiment." February 29, 2024. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-stanford-prison-experiment/.

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How to get out of the Stanford Prison Experiment: Revisiting Social Science Research Ethics

Profile image of Harry Perlstadt

Current Research Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities

The Stanford Prison Experiment has continued to raise questions about social science research ethics. Male student volunteers were randomly assigned to be prisoners or guards in a simulation in which the guards became sadistic and the prisoners showed extreme stress. Two ethical issues are the ability of the participants to leave the experiment and the failure to provide adequate oversight and intervening to limit the abuse of the prisoners. In 2018, these issues were revisited and some declared the experiment unscientific and untrustworthy. However, the experiment was carried out before many social science research ethics were established. A detailed description of the experiment reveals insights on how group dynamics and social structure can encourage normal individuals to harm one another in a prison environment. The study is a cautionary tale that should be included in textbooks to improve social science research, demonstrate the need for research ethics, and prevent outrageous ...

Related Papers

In 1971, a research was conducted in which subjects played the roles of prisoners and guards in a period of time simulating the prison environment for the purpose of studying a number of problems of psychological and sociological relevance. The projected two- week study had to be prematurely terminated when it became apparent that many of the ‘prisoners’ were in serious distress and many of the ‘guards’ were behaving in ways which brutalized and degraded their fellow subjects.

research paper on stanford prison experiment

Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin

Sam McFarland

Mark McDermott

Siamak Movahedi

Ayoub Nejjari

Incarceration

Stephen Bottoms

Almost 50 years on, the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 remains one of the most notorious and controversial psychology studies ever devised. It has often been treated as a cautionary tale about what can happen in prison situations if there is inadequate staff training or safeguarding, given the inherent power differentials between staff and inmates. But what exactly was the ‘situation’ in the simulated prison at Stanford University, and how exactly did the participants respond to it? This article provides a new analysis of the behaviour of the nine Stanford ‘guards’, which draws on unpublished archival records and original interviews with some of the participants. It adopts an interactionist approach, whereby the individual backgrounds and personalities of the participants are seen to inform their behaviour within the situation provided, as well as vice versa. A key suggestion to emerge from this analysis is that the conduct of the three guard shifts, within the experiment, diffe...

Behavioral Sciences & the Law

James Overholser

Journal of Bioethical Inquiry

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Ethical implications in conducting research with prisoners from a biological psychology perspective

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COMMENTS

  1. The Stanford prison experiment in introductory psychology textbooks: A

    There are few studies in the history of psychology as renowned as the Stanford prison experiment (SPE) (Haney, Banks, & Zimbardo, 1973), and few psychologists as recognizable as the study's principal investigator, Philip Zimbardo.The SPE has influenced music, film, and art and has served as a testament to the power of "bad" systems and a counterbalance to "bad" person accounts of ...

  2. Demonstrating the Power of Social Situations via a Simulated Prison

    The lessons of the Stanford Prison Experiment have gone well beyond the classroom (Haney & Zimbardo, 1998). Zimbardo was invited to give testimony to a Congressional Committee investigating the causes of prison riots (Zimbardo, 1971), and to a Senate Judiciary Committee on crime and prisons focused on detention of juveniles (Zimbardo, 1974).

  3. (PDF) Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment: A Case Study in

    Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) in criminology/criminal justice journals (1975-2014) were content analyzed to assess whether the study's conclu- sions have been embraced or treated with ...

  4. PDF Using New Revelations About the Stanford Prison Experiment to Address

    Le Texier's (2019) paper, "Debunking the Stanford prison experiment," which is currently in press in American Psy-chologist and details his archival research and findings, as the source for our study. Le Texier provided us with a prepublication copy of his paper and also verified the accu-racy of our summary description of his findings.

  5. The Stanford Prison Experiment: The Power of the Situation

    On Sunday, July 31, Zimbardo completed his application to the Stanford University Human Subjects Research Review Committee for approval of the study "Role Playing in a Simulated Prison."The review committee quickly approved the application and the experiment began exactly 2 weeks later, on Sunday, August 14, 1971.

  6. (PDF) Review on The Stanford Prison Experiment

    This article is a summary of the Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo in 1971. I have discussed it based on the report published by Philip Zimbardo for an assignment.

  7. Stanford Prison Experiment

    Stanford Prison Experiment, a social psychology study in which college students became prisoners or guards in a simulated prison environment.The experiment, funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, took place at Stanford University in August 1971. It was intended to measure the effect of role-playing, labeling, and social expectations on behaviour over a period of two weeks.

  8. (PDF) Reflections on the Stanford Prison Experiment: Genesis

    PDF | On Jan 1, 2000, Philip G. Zimbardo and others published Reflections on the Stanford Prison Experiment: Genesis, transformations, consequences | Find, read and cite all the research you need ...

  9. Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment: A Case Study in Organized

    In this context, citations to Zimbardo and colleagues' classic Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) in criminology/criminal justice journals (1975-2014) were content analyzed to assess whether the study's conclusions have been embraced or treated with skepticism. The data revealed that scholars were widely accepting of the SPE and, even when ...

  10. Stanford Prison Experiment

    About the Stanford Prison Experiment. Carried out August 15-21, 1971 in the basement of Jordan Hall, the Stanford Prison Experiment set out to examine the psychological effects of authority and powerlessness in a prison environment. The study, led by psychology professor Philip G. Zimbardo, recruited Stanford students using a local newspaper ad.

  11. The dirty work of the Stanford Prison Experiment: Re-reading the

    Almost 50 years on, the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 remains one of the most notorious and controversial psychology studies ever devised. It has often been treated as a cautionary tale about what can happen in prison situations if there is inadequate staff training or safeguarding, given the inherent power differentials between staff and ...

  12. Stanford prison experiment

    The Stanford prison experiment (SPE) was a psychological experiment conducted in August 1971.It was a two-week simulation of a prison environment that examined the effects of situational variables on participants' reactions and behaviors. Stanford University psychology professor Philip Zimbardo led the research team who administered the study.. Participants were recruited from the local ...

  13. Stanford Prison Experiment: Zimbardo's Famous Study

    The experiment was conducted in 1971 by psychologist Philip Zimbardo to examine situational forces versus dispositions in human behavior. 24 young, healthy, psychologically normal men were randomly assigned to be "prisoners" or "guards" in a simulated prison environment. The experiment had to be terminated after only 6 days due to the ...

  14. The Real Lesson of the Stanford Prison Experiment

    June 12, 2015. A scene from "The Stanford Prison Experiment," a new movie inspired by the famous but widely misunderstood study. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY SPENCER SHWETZ/SUNDANCE INSTITUTE. On the ...

  15. The Stanford Prison Experiment: An Exploration into the Behaviors that

    After receiving a tenured position in 1971, he then began planning to conduct the Stanford Prison Experiment with help from a government grants from the U.S. Office of Naval Research. The government was interested in Zimbardo's study because of the results it could reveal and give them additional information to aid in their military prisons.

  16. A Study of Prisoners and Guards in a Simulated Prison

    To try to understand what can happen in these secret places, it is worth looking at Zimbardo's Stanford prison experiment (Haney et al, 1973), and at how bad it can actually get in real detention ...

  17. Stanford Prison Experiment Research Papers

    We discussed the Stanford Prison Experiment in the greater context of his varied and illustrious career, including recent pioneering work on heroism, the establishment of The Shyness Clinic at Stanford University, and the iconic Discovering Psychology series. We also addressed his adroit and candid approach to the experiment itself over the years.

  18. Stanford Prison Experiment: Zimbardo's Famous Study

    The Stanford Prison Experiment, also known as the Zimbardo Prison Experiment, went on to become one of the best-known (and controversial) in psychology's history. The study has long been a staple in textbooks, articles, psychology classes, and even movies, but recent criticisms have called the study's scientific merits and value into question.

  19. The Stanford Prison Experiment was massively influential. We just ...

    The Stanford Prison Experiment, one of the most famous and compelling psychological studies of all time, told us a tantalizingly simple story about human nature. The study took paid participants ...

  20. PDF CPY Document

    Title: CPY Document

  21. (PDF) Evidence and stories about evidence: Stanford Prison Experiment

    Abstract. The Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by Philip G. Zimbardo is probably the most recognizable study in the area of social psychology. The summer of 2018 proved to be exceptionally ...

  22. The Stanford Prison Experiment

    Social Psychology Issues: The Stanford Prison Experiment Essay. Social psychology examines how the personality, attitudes, motivations and actions of individuals are influenced by social groups. Researchers in the field have always been interested in the effects that social and environmental elements have on individuals' perceptions and behavior.

  23. How to get out of the Stanford Prison Experiment: Revisiting Social

    The Stanford Prison Experiment has continued to raise questions about social science research ethics. Male student volunteers were randomly assigned to be prisoners or guards in a simulation in which the guards became sadistic and the prisoners showed extreme stress.