Seeming quite a very of us are going to see the amazing Philip Zimbardo tomorrow, I thought I would choose to do my last blog on him and his research. First some background information; he was born in 1933 and is a professor at Stanford University.
Probably the most famous study of his is the Stanford Prison experiment, in 1971. The aim of this study was to see how easily people would conform to roles of either prisoner or guard, in a role playing simulated prison life. He also wanted to see if it was due to personality types of prison environment. He recruited 24 clinically sane participants (that were students), who were then randomly assigned as either “prisoners” or “guards” and placed in a mock prison which was actually located in the basement of the Psychology building in Stanford. The participants knew they would be taking part in a study but didn’t know when and were just arrested one morning and taken to mock prison. The study was a longitudinal study and was planned to last for two weeks however ended after just six days after harm to participants become clear through emotional trauma.
The prisoners were stripped searched and shaved on arrival which caused them much humiliation. This helped to create the real life environment, however could be classed as unethical as is causing harm and humiliation to participants. The guards were not told any guidelines of how they should behave as the psychologists allowed them to act accordingly in order to keep prison in order. Throughout the study the participants started to fit their roles with the guards becoming sadistic and prisoners showing signs of depression.
Before the prisoners becoming distressed they didnt take the guards authority as serious and even mocked the guards and tried to regain their individuality. However they soon realised the guard’s behaviour was serious and they wanted obedience. The guards began to use physical punishment and exercises to show authority. The prisoners started to rebel and ripped of uniforms and locked themselves in cells by pushing beds against doors which led the guards to become angry and call for backup. The guards decided to fight back to discipline prisoners and used fire extinguishers on them to enable them to get away from entrance allowing guards in. Once in the guards stripped the inmates and put prisoners who had started this in solitary confinement. Simple things like going to the bathroom was seen as a privilege, which the guards controlled with those who disobeyed guards only allowed urinating and defecating in a bucket in their cells. By the end of the study the experiment had showed some very interesting results. These normal students had adapted to their roles and actually believed in it. One prisoner even went on hunger strike which shows how the study had lead to a dangerous and psychologically damaging situation.
Right so evaluation of this study. First the bad points; the participants were male students and mainly white and middle class- surely this is not generalisable. Also the participants were paid everyday so maybe they felt they couldn’t really leave study, plus being students we all know we need the money! However Zimbardo says they carried on with the study because they had internalised their roles of prisoner identity. There was a lot of ethical problems, with the main one being harm to participants through physical and emotional trauma. Zimbardo also became very involved in his study, influencing the guards behaviour and heard saying to them “You can create in the prisoners 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”- this shows how it is largely subjective which questions validity and reliability of study. Another critic is that it was simply role playing through social desirability, but Zimbardo argued that it would have been impossible to keep this up the whole time. Another criticism is ecological validity, as was mock setting and finally consent as even Zimbardo did not fully know what was going to happen in the study.
However the study did produce some very interesting results.The results of this experiment have been compared to Abu Garhib prisoner’s abuse in Iraq. The results are favour situational attribution as is because of situation rather than personalities (dispositional attribution) which caused behaviour. The experiment also illustrates cognitive dissonance theory and power of authority on others and shows once again how humans placed in right situation, do have a dark side.
Carnahan, T. & McFarland, S. (2007). Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment: Could Participant Self-Selection Have Led to the Cruelty? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 33, No. 5, 603-614.
Zimbardo, P. G (2007) Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. Interview transcript. “Democracy Now!”, March 30, 2007. Accessed March 31, 2007.