• Thanushree Anil

Stanford Prison Experiment: Triggered or Instinctive?


On a quiet morning of 14th august 1971, 9 male college students were dragged off from their homes on the account of burglary and theft by the police as the neighbors looked on.

Weeks before these gentlemen had responded to an advertisement which had stated the need for volunteers for an experiment “the prison life”.

Initially, the first advertisement that was released had the wordings “a psychological study” and the second with “prison life”.

The advertisement

During a research, it was found that the students who had answered to the latter advertisement showed traits such as social dominance, aggression, authoritarianism, and were lower in traits of empathy and altruism.

Mr. Philip Zimbardo
Mr. Philip Zimbardo

Mr. Philp Zimbardo an American psychologist conducted this experiment or rather a demonstration to understand human nature when given power. In addition to that, to understand whether the condition in the American prisons was due to the sadistic nature of the guards (dispositional) or it was the environment (situational).

With a toss of the coin the role was determined; a prisoner or a guard. Mr. Zimbardo himself was part of the experiment and was the superintendent.

He directed the experiment to induce disorientation, depersonalization, and deindividualization.

Disorientation; so that the prisoners feel confused, never know what is happening in the outside world, the date and day all gone by the wind. An altered mental state was the aim

Depersonalization; they question the reality.

Deindividualisation; losing self-awareness, the inmates were referred to by their serial numbers stitched on their rags and not by their names.

Prisoner #8612 of stanford prison experiment
Prisoner #8612

The experiment proved out to be working almost immediately, as 35 hours later #8612 began to act crazy, to scream to go into a rage. The guards were encouraged to harass the prisoners using physical punishment and were never restricted from doing so.

Soon the guards began adapting to the roles they were playing quite well and became genuinely sadistic towards the inmates.

A scene from the movie adaptation

There were rebellions inside the cell for punishments like only being allowed to urinate or defecate in a bucket and nowhere else. For punishments such as making the prisoner do protracted exercise for errors. Removing the mattress so they had to sleep on the hard concrete floor. Forced to get naked as part of degrading themselves. The prisoner's heads were covered in paper bags when they were brought in so that they couldn't know they were in just the psych building of Stanford.

The prisoners heads were covered in paper bags so that they didn't know they were in just a psych building at Stanford.
The prisoners heads covered in paper bags

The situation had gotten unethical which was pointed out by Christina Maslach who got a chance to be a part of the team, pointed out to the conditions the prisoners were being encountered with, and questioned morality.

The experiment which was supposed to last for two weeks came to an early end. After 6 days the experiment started, on August 20 1971, it came to a halt.

The study has changed the way US prison runs which could be said as the only positive outcome.


According to Mr. Zimbardo, the conclusion he drew from the experiment was how the situation can come into play in human behavior. The guards were faced in a position of power and they behaved in ways that they never would have in their daily lives.

Now, the critical reviews about the experiment for one, question that the 24 men that were taken were middle-class white men, this cannot prove to be useful for a wide range of the population.

Psychologist Peter Gray in 2013 criticized that the experiment cannot be completely relied on as the participants of psychological experiments tend to make choices or decisions according to what the researchers want.

Dave Eshelman
Dave Eshelman

He stated, “to act out their stereotyped views of what prisoners and guards do”.

Dave Eshelman nicknamed as John Wayne by the other participants admits that what he did out there in the experiment was planned. He said that he caused some escalating events and adopted the character from the character in a 1967 film Cool Hand Luke. He stated that he willingly let the character adopt him so that the researchers could have something to work on.

One of the students, Douglas Korni who had the role of a prisoner had a mental breakdown and cried that he couldn’t stand another night. Later on, in a 2017 interview, he stated that the outburst was completely faked by him so that he could return to studying. He also expressed regret that a false imprisonment charge was not filed by him years before.

It is also suggested that the participants might have been acting according to Hawthorne’s effect also called the observers’ effect wherein a person’s behavior and character would alter as they know they are being watched.

Now the question here is, does power make a man evil or sadistic?