Introduction to Psychology Laboratory
Due at April 15th, 2003
In 1971, Zimbardo set an experiment in the basement of Stanford University simulating a prison environment to see the effects of imprisonment in regular civilians. He and his team recruited 24 college students for a paid, two-week experiment. Half of the subjects was assigned the role of prison guards and the other half was assigned the role of prisoners. Within days, the “prison guards” began exercising oppressive psychological dominance over the “prisoners”. Guards created several punishment methods, such as push-ups and redirecting other prisoners’ frustration towards the rebel prisoners, and effectively implemented control methods such as giving better treatment to obedient students. The psychological damage was such that at the sixth day, an outside observer pointed out the suffering underwent by the “prisoners”. And thus the experiment ended.
I agree that the experiment should have been discontinued as soon as the administration became aware of inherent flaws contained in it. The experimenters agreed to undergo minimal nutrition and psychologically hostile treatment, but the guards often imposed physical pain on the prisoners. Furthermore, even though the video didn’t mention it, in the website (prisonexp.org) it is mentioned that guards would harass sexually and physically the prisoners late at night when they thought nobody was watching them. (This was noted later through video recordings). The experiment agreement was rather vague on this respect and any kind of harassment or retention (such as when the whole prison was moved elsewhere to keep the system from parents) could be either interpreted as belonging or not belonging within the limits of the contract.
Therefore, I believe the experiment could be re-proposed if the experiment participation agreement was clearly defined, stating what is allowed and what is not. Also, since Zimbardo declared he wasn’t playing the role of the experimenter anymore, absort he was in his role of superintendent, it will be necessary to allow external monitoring and participation of the research process while during the ongoing experiment. Also, “prisoners” should be briefed before initiating the experiment of the ways of interrupting participation. It should be remembered that when 8612 requested to be let out of the prison, he was talked by the “prison head” and the “superintendent” both of whom discouraged 8612 in such a derogatory way that 8612 ended up believing that his situation was a real imprisonment. This belief spread into the rest of the prison dwellers. What is important to see here is that both the “superintendent” and “prison head” persuaded 8612 believe that this would increase the level of reality the experiment carried, but they didn’t stop at the fact that 8612 really wanted to get out of the experiment altogether. Until the last day, anything that the participants did was understood within the context of experiment, effectively creating a total institution, the exception being 819 to whom Zimbardo explained that “this was just an experiment”
This study shows that imprisonment can drive a “normal” person into other kinds of personalities, which are often described as criminal and brutal. Nazi germany was composed of normal humans who happened to be under the rule of a governor who developed a whole social structured that converted many into ruthless and genocidal soldiers. It seems like responsibility could be delegated upon the social institutions that rule people’s lives, given that the institutions are strong enough to exercise such power. It also shows that the control over a group of people doesn’t necessarily require physical (practical) power, but rather convincing the group that they’re hopelessly destined to obey orders. This is how three guards on a shift at a time could effectively control the 12 prisoners at any given time.
On the other hand, it could be argued that the prisons are still doing what they are supposed to do, just that now they’re revealing the underlying criminal impulses of individuals that could materialize at any moment, and argue that the students happened to have such criminalistic instincts. However, what would happen if a new experiment with a larger pool of participants yielded the same results? Given every person has the so-called criminalistic instincts, having a number of people in jails and while others are not in jails for the same reasons is not justifiable.
What was found in the Stanford Prison Experiment is the model for any generic form of total institution. At institutions in which individuals are immersed days and weeks, where a strong authority rules over them, such as the Army or Monasteries, where the settings are real and not just experimental, any violation of basic human rights, of human dignity, and negation of common sense could occur, and still pass unnoticed to the “prison guards”.