Stanford Prison Study

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In 1973, Phillip Zimbardo and his colleagues designed the Stanford Prison Study to cast light on the brutality reported among guards in American prisons. Zimbardo was interested in the whether the cause was due to the sadistic personalities of the guards or as a natural behavior response to the prison environment. He designed an experiment to find the answers.

The infamous Stanford Prison Experiment took place in a makeshift prison designed in the basement of the psychology department at Stanford University. Twenty four student volunteered to participate. First, the students were randomly divided into guards and prisoners. Zimbardo utilized the local police to make mock arrests of the “prisoner” students. The volunteers were processed them at the police station and book into “Stanford County Jail,” constructed in the basement of the psychology department.

The guards slowly became more abusive as the experiment progressed. The prison study, scheduled to last two weeks, lasted only six days. The mental toll of the experiment on the student prisoners became evident to Zimbardo’s girlfriend, Christina Maslach (now his wife of many years). Eventually, she persuaded him to shut it down.

The Stanford Prison Study Explored Situational Forces

From the six day experiment, Zimbardo concluded that situational forces have a great influence over behavior. He believed they likely had a greater influence than dispositional forces. “One of the dominant conclusions of the Stanford Prison Experiment is that the pervasive yet subtle power of a host of situational variables can dominate an individual’s will to resist” (Zimbardo, 2008, location 119).

Zimbardo explains that a host of psychological and social forces combine and can induce good people to do evil. Some of these force are deindividuation, obedience to authority, passivity in the face of threats, self-justification, and rationalization.

Criticisms of the Stanford Prison Study

Ethically, researchers cannot reconstruct the experiment to test the validity of the findings. The design of the experiment was flawed. Zimbardo played an active role running of the Stanford prison, directing guards behaviors, and influencing outcomes. He lost objectivity through intimate involvement and tainting all the findings.

Dispositions and Environments

The question underlying dispositional evil or situational behavior is an ancient one. Basically, we are referencing  the nature-nurture debate. Zimbardo wrote, “people and situations are usually in a state of dynamic interaction.” The end behaviors are an interactive result of these interactions. Predispositions and strength of past and present environments complexly interweave to propel us towards one course of action or another.  Perhaps, a uniform, a righteous cause, lack of oversight and a supportive cast of similarly conditioned officers is a deadly concoction in some situations.

A Few Words from Psychology Fanatic

After a few decades of intense research on human behavior, I am unable to identify a clear divide between situational forces and dispositional forces. When a person commits evil acts, identifying an exact cause is impossible. I’m left to wonder, “would I act the same if I lived under the same conditions from early childhood until the final precipitating events that led to the evil?”

We tend to attribute evilness to the dispositions of those we don’t know or don’t like. However, we prefer situational forces when evaluating our own misdeeds. While the theoretical questions posed by Zimbardo remain unanswered by the behavior of twenty four students in a make shift dungeon, the sociological and psychological implications are fascinating. Certainly, these topics deserve more thought. In final analysis, the Stanford Prison Experiment brought attention to an important issue. While the findings remain muddled in poor experiment design, the attention brought to the criminal justice system and human behavior in general was important.

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Zimbardo, P. (2008). The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. ‎ Random House Trade Paperbacks; First Edition.

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