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The Stanford prison experiment The Stanford prison experiment was an experiment that had the aim of exploring the impact that power can have psychologically. This idea was looked at through the relationship between prisoners and prison officers. It was conducted at Stanford University between the 14th and 20th of August of 1971 in a section of a basement of Jordan Hall (Stanford’s psychology building) by a research group led by a psychology professor named Philip Zimbardo. Male students from Stanford university who volunteered to partake in the experiment were used. They were told that they were to partake in a two-week stimulation of a prison. They were selected on the basis of being the most psychologically stable and healthy. The majority of students were white and middle class. They were all free from criminal convictions and mental or physical illnesses.
Twelve of the participants were told that they would be acting as prisoners and the other 12 were to be guards (making a total of 24 participants.) Zimbardo and the research team were monitoring the experiment via cameras installed in the ‘mock prison.’ Prior to the experiment, the guards were told by Zimbardo and the research team that they were not allowed to physically assault the prisoners or restrict the food or drink they received. The local Palo Alto police department assisted Zimbardo with the mock arrests the prisoners received whilst at their homes and followed the full booking procedures a genuine prisoner would receive, including fingerprinting and taking mug shots.
The prisoners were brought from the police station to the mock prison where the experiment truly began. After only 36 hours, one prisoner, according to Zimbardo, began to “scream, to curse, to go into a rage that seemed out of control. It took quite a while before we became convinced that he was really suffering and that we had to release him.” The guards forced the prisoners to repeat the numbers they were given to embed in their minds that this was their new identity. The guards began to physically and mentally harm the prisoners in many different ways. Most of the guards were upset when the experiment was halted after only six days. The guards would also punish the prisoners by taking their mattresses which meant that they had no choice but to either sleep on concrete or not sleep at all. Several guards became increasingly cruel as the experiment continued. A stand-by prisoner expressed concern about the way which the other prisoners were being treated. The guards responded to this with more abuse. When said prisoner went on a hunger strike in opposition to the guards’ violence, he was sent to “solitary confinement” (which was a dark closet in the mock prison). The guards also told the other prisoners to hit the door whilst shouting at the prisoner.
The guards said the only condition in which he would be released from solitary confinement was if the other prisoners gave up their blankets and slept on their bare mattresses. All but one prisoner all refused to do so. Zimbardo ended the experiment early following a strong request from Christina Maslach, (a graduate student who he later married) to stop subjecting the students to the harsh treatment they were receiving as prisoners.
After only six days (the experiment was scheduled to last for two weeks) the experiment was discontinued. A positive of the study is that it has changed the way that prisons in the US are run, e.g. juveniles that are accused of federal crimes are no longer housed with adult prisoners prior to their trial because of the threat of violence against them. However, there were an overwhelming amount of negatives. One third of the guards were found to have shown “genuine sadistic tendencies”. A lot of the prisoners were severely emotionally traumatised with five of them being removed from the experiment early.
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