Phillip Zimbardo: The Stanford Prison Experiment

In today’s society, individuals and society are one in the same. David M. Newman, author of Sociology: Exploring the Architecture of Everyday Life, stated in one of his chapters that “the relationship between

individuals and society is reciprocal” (Newman, 2006). So, basically, it is well known that you can’t have an individual without the society and vice-versa. Individuals can have an affect on their own social structure by modifying role expectations, changing norms, creating and/or destroying organizations, and revolutionizing institutions (Newman, 2006).

In August of 1971, Phillip Zimbardo headed up a simulation study of the psychology of imprisonment. The study took place at Stanford University, with volunteers from the University itself. Zimbardo had two specific questions in mind that he hoped to answer after the study was complete. The two questions were: What happens when you put good people in an evil place? Does humanity win over evil, or does evil triumph? (Zimbardo, 1999-2007).

Prior to beginning the actual study, Zimbardo placed an ad in the local paper, asking for volunteers to participate in a study of the psychological effects of prison life. He wanted to see what the psychological effects of prison life were both on the prison guard and the prisoner. A simulated prison would be set up in a building on the University’s campus and the study would begin. Several volunteers answered the ad, but after completing the necessary screening process, there were only 24 people qualified to participate in the study, all of which were males. Randomly, half of the participators were assigned to be prison guards and half were assigned to be the prisoners. Each of the 24 people was given $15.00 for everyday they participated in the study (Zimbardo, 2006).

The day the experiment began, the prisoners were picked up from their home by actual police officers. The “arrest” process was done as it would be in a real situation, as well as the “booking” process. While the prisoners were being picked up, booked on their charges, and transported to the simulated prison, Zimbardo met with the other half of the men who were going to act as guards. Zimbardo told the guards their duties and limitations while they were guarding the prisoners. Zimbardo told the guards,
“You can create in the prisoner’s feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can create a notion of arbitrariness that their life is totally controlled by us, by the system, you, me, and they’ll have no privacy… We’re going to take away their individuality in various ways. In general what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness. That is, in this situation we’ll have all the power and they’ll have none” (Stanford, 2007).

After the prisoner’s and guards all arrived at the prison, the guards began their duties. The prisoners were dressed in muslim smocks and they were not allowed to wear underwear. They were given a pair of thong sandles and numbers were sewn into their uniforms which would be their new form of identity; they would no longer be called by their names. The prisoner’s were required to wear a stocking over their head to make it look as if their heads had been shaved. They also had to wear an ankle bracelet to constantly remind them of the imprisonment and oppression (Stanford, 2007).

On the second day of the experiment, trouble began. There was a lot of emotional and psychological distress amongst those participating. Before the study was even over, 2 prisoners had to be released due to extreme suffering that lead to potentially life-threatening effects. The study was intended to last for 2 weeks, but had to be stopped on the sixth day due to both the guards and prisoners suffering emotionally and psychologically. The results of the study tied into the study of electrical shock that was done by Stanley Milgram. From his study, Zimbardo was able to prove that “most evil is the product of rather ordinary people caught up in unusual circumstances that they are not equipped to cope with in the normal ways” (Farmer, 2007).

As stated in Newman’s book, “living with others, within a social structure, influences many aspects of our everyday lives” (Newman, 2006). After reading the results of the Stanford Prison Experiment, the question arises of why would people obey an unreasonable authority? Do people forgive “abusive” authoritative figures because they know they are only obeying what they have been told to do by their authoritative figure?

In today’s society, both the individual and society are one in the same. According the Stanford Prison Experiment, people will listen and abide by rules because they know no other way to act. Most of the study participants realized that if they remained active in the roles they were assigned, there was light at the end of the tunnel and soon the study would be over. They would then receive their payment and they could go on with their lives. They were willing to be abused by the authoritative figure and not hold anything against them, because those authoritative figures were carrying out the duties they were assigned to do. In today’s society, the norms on the environment control people for their own personal actions. The norm is under the direction of the authoritative figure and the subject takes no responsibility for their actions because they are only doing what the authoritative figure has instructed them to do so.

Reference Page
Farmer, Francis. (2007). The Stanford Prison Experiment. Retrieved October 9, 2007

Newman, David M. 2006. Sociology: Exploring the Architecture of Everyday Life.
Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press.

The Stanford Prison Experiment. Retrieved October 9, 2007 from

Zimbardo, Phillip. (2007). The Stanford Prison Experiment: A Simulation Study of the
Psychology of Imprisonment Conducted at Stanford University. Retrieved October 6, 2007 from