The Stanford Prison Experiment

The Dark Side of Authority

Have you ever wondered how you or a friend would react in a very difficult situation? So did psychologist Philip Zimbardo in 1971. Dr. Zimbardo and his team conducted a study at Stanford prison to find out how human behavior changed in stressful situations. In the cellar of a Stanford psychology building, Dr. Zimbardo’s team built a pseudo-prison and then chose 24 students as prisoners and guards. All were psychologically healthy and had no prior criminal histories. Prisoner-participants stayed for 24 hours and guard-participants had shifts of eight hours. Researchers observed all behavior via closed-circuit cameras.

Arrest of prisoner-participants

The experiment, set to take place over two weeks, barely lasted six days. Guards became abusive toward the prisoners, and the psychological stress of the situation became too much for the prisoners. Allegedly, the guards made prisoners participate in “increasingly humiliating sexual activities,” as reported by Dr. Zimbardo in the American Scientist. He stopped the experiment, citing a potential for excessive harm- particularly for the prisoners.

Prisoner-participants lineup

The results of this study have been questioned over the years. However, the scientist and his team uncovered some important information. First, the experiment showed that social and institutional support structures affect how humans react under pressure. Further, the high levels authoritative behavior from guards over the prisoners demonstrated the main idea of cognitive dissonance, especially displaying how quickly the prisoners and guards acclimated to their new roles. Most importantly, the results showed that particular situations, instead of singular personalities, affected how the participants acted in that psychologically stressful situation. This experiment proved that the social environment strongly influenced behavior, more so than personal character.

Guard-participants walking in the SPE yard

Right after the study, riots took place at the San Quentin and Attica prisons. Because of his findings, Dr. Zimbardo was asked to share his work with the United States Congress.

The study had a profound impact on the field of psychology and the wider world, as it highlighted the potentially harmful effects of power and authority on individuals, as well as the potential for dehumanization and abuse in institutional settings. The study has been criticized for its ethical implications, including the potential harm to participants and the lack of informed consent, but it remains an influential and controversial study in the field of psychology.


“Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol, morphine or idealism.” – Carl Gustav Jung

“Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.” – Arthur Schopenhauer, Studies in Pessimism: The Essays

“If you ever find yourself in the wrong story, leave.” – Mo Willems, Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs

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