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Volume 2, Number 3, May 2002

Stanford Prison Experiment Now Online

Report readers may be interested in a study that simulated prison life. While experiments involving crime, prison and the law may seem more suited to the fields of Criminal Justice, Law and Psychology, the study is also useful to those interested in conflict management in higher education. You will discover, as people involved in the study did, that simulating prison life involved conflict resolution on the part of the researchers and simulation volunteers. The Stanford Prison Experiment is also a valuable teaching tool for conflict management faculty.

Stanford Prison Experiment

Background

Philip G. Zimbardo wanted to uncover the "nature of human nature" when he planned a two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life. The experiment, called the 'Stanford Prison Experiment: A Simulation Study of the Psychology of Imprisonment', took place at Stanford University in 1971. Researchers involved with the now classic psychology experiment wanted to find answers to the following questions: What happens when you put good people in an evil place? Does humanity win over evil, or does evil triumph?

Summary of the Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment involved 24 male college students from the United States and Canada who answered a local newspaper advertisement calling for volunteers. The volunteers had to be in the Stanford area, psychologically, mentally, emotionally and physically healthy and willing to participate in the study for 1-2 weeks. Volunteers would receive $15 per day for their participation.

The Stanford Prison Experiment research team relied on consultants to help them construct a prison in the basement of Stanford's Psychology Department. The prison contained prison cells, a toilet room, an eating and exercise yard, a solitary confinement room and an intercom system used to make announcements to the prisoners. Researchers observed the guards and prisoners via secretly placed video cameras and microphones.

Researchers randomly divided the 24 volunteers into two groups. One group was assigned to be guards while the other group was to be prisoners. Volunteers assigned as prisoners found out about their acceptance into the experiment when they were arrested in their home or on campus by real police.

What followed was investigation into human nature. Prisoners experienced degradation, punishment, despair, oppression and depression as they started to actually believe they were prisoners. Guards took their role seriously as they enforced the law and asserted power and authority. The Stanford Prison Experiment, which was supposed to last for two weeks, ended after six days when researchers realized that guards were becoming abusive and prisoners were forgetting that they were not real prisoners.

Ways to Learn More About the Study

The Stanford Prison Experiment is fully detailed online at http://www.prisonexp.org. The website contains a slide show that is divided into the following sections: prelude, setting up, arrival, guards, rebellion, grievances, escape and conclusion. Also included are discussion questions, such as

  • If you were a guard, what type of guard would you become? How sure are you?
  • Why did our prisoners try to work within the arbitrary prison system to effect a change in it (e.g., setting up a grievance committee), rather than trying to dismantle or change the system through outside help?
  • After the study, how do you think the prisoners and guards felt when they saw each other in the same civilian clothes again and saw their prison reconverted to a basement labratory hallway?
  • If prisons are seen as forms of control which limit individual freedom, how do they differ from the prisons we carete through racism, sexism, ageism, poverty and other social institutions?
    Was it ethical to do this study?

In addition to reading information and pondering discussion questions, a 50-minute documentary videotape is available for approximately $100.
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Page last updated 11/27/2005

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