Beyond Character - The Stanford Prison Experiment

A prevalent question that commonly arises is whether people are inherently born evil–or turn evil as a result of the situation and environment that they are born into. The Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted with this specific question in mind. Whether it be dehumanization and discrimination, to the black sheep effect and the realistic conflict theory, this psychological study touched on these areas. In this Deep Dive, we will analyze the Stanford Prison Experiment in great detail–from its history of initiation to the criticisms received.


The Stanford Prison Experiment, initiated and funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, was intended to identify the difficulties between guards and prisoners in the U.S. Navy and its Marine Corps. Hoping to pinpoint the cause of these difficulties, American psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo took on the investigation in August 1971. At the time Zimbardo had just been appointed a professor of psychology at Stanford University. The project, although promising, was terminated a brief six days after it began due to the inhumane treatment of the 24 subjects.


To examine his hypothesis that prison brutality is caused by situational, rather than dispositional, factors, Zimbardo and his colleagues set up a prison experiment in the basement of Stanford University’s Psychology department building in 1973. The experiment was intended to last for 2 weeks.


70 responded to a public advertisement by the researchers, promising a pay of $15/day. 24 male college students with no history of conviction, drug abuse, or mental problems, were selected. They were randomly divided into two groups, prisoners and guards, with three stand-bys on each.


Zimbardo played the superintendent, overseeing the experiment with his assistant researchers and advisors.

Guards are instructed to pursue any action necessary to keep order and demand respect from prisoners, except from deprivation of basic needs (eg. food) and physical harm. They minimize contact with prisoners through special sunglasses, and assert their authority with provided police attire and batons. To resemble the prison experience, “prisoners” experienced the full process of prison admittance, from being arrested, booked, strip-searched, chained, and given inmate numbers and uniforms to humiliate them and deprive their sense of identity.


Three rooms and a corridor in the basement of Jordan Hall were cordoned off and repurposed into cells and the common area (“the Yard”) for inmates, respectively. A small closet called “the Hole,” served as a solitary confinement cell for unruly inmates. All activity was recorded through an opening at the end of the hall. There were no windows or clocks, stripping away the sensation of time.


“The Yard” (

Results and Conclusion

The experiment resulted in the guards becoming abusive, and the prisoners beginning to show signs of anxiety and stress. This became so alarming that the experiment had to be stopped after six days, instead of the fourteen which were originally planned. Even though the guards and prisoners were allowed to interact in any way they want to, the guards deliberately chose hostile and dehumanizing methods, such as only allowing the prisoners to urinate in a bucket after ‘lights out’ at 10 p.m. The prisoners also became more depressed and passive as the study went on, and five of the prisoners had to be released early after experiencing severe anxiety. There were also multiple incidents detrimental to the prisoners’ health, including when a prisoner got a psychosomatic rash all over his body due to mental and emotional conflict.

Perhaps even more disturbingly, Zimbardo, acting as the prison warden, overlooked the abusive behaviour himself; and the experiment was only stopped on August 20, 1971, after another student, Christina Maslach, voiced objections about it. Zimbardo reported that out of more than 50 people who saw the experiment, she was the only person to question its ethics.

Zimbardo concluded from the experiment that it was the situation of the simulated prisons, rather than the personalities of the participants, which caused the results of the experiment. The outcome demonstrates how much someone can be affected by the situation they’re in, which is shown by the ‘guards’, ‘prisoners’, and even the researchers.

The experiment also shows how authority and certain situations can lead to certain behaviours. For instance, in this scenario, the fact that the prisoners feel like they’re being watched by a (significantly abusive) authority may have caused them to exhibit a passive and unresisting behaviour– this is also known as the Hawthorne Effect. Similarly, this can be applied to the guards: the fact that when they acted aggressively/abusively towards the prisoners and then didn’t get any consequences from their supervisors, most likely encouraged them to continue such behaviours towards the prisoners.

Syllabus Relations

The Stanford Prison Experiment’s extremities and controversies are the first things that catch people off guard. At first glance, it appears to be some crazy experiment facilitated by an even crazier guy. Though jarring, the underlying psychological complexities behind the experiment are definitely worth investigating. SPE is directly related to the notion of exclusion, because it explores how a difference in perceived power between groups leads to abuse and conflict. In order to illustrate its links to the WSC Social Studies syllabus, we’ll have 4 points for discussion:

I. Social dominance orientation II. Dehumanization III. Institutionalized racism IV. Ingroups vs. Outgroups

Social dominance orientation (otherwise abbreviated as SDO) measures the degree to which an individual supports group-based hierarchies. It shapes one’s perspective and attitude towards hierarchies present in society: whether certain groups should hold dominant positions over others, etc. In sum, those with a high SDO believe that the foundations of modern society’s structure should be influenced by inequality; groups that remain at the very top hold power over those at the bottom of the pyramid. In contrast, individuals with low SDOs place higher value on equality. They prefer a world where society should be “structured in terms of equality”.

Let’s apply this knowledge to the Stanford Prison Experiment. Each participant was assigned to play the role of a prisoner or guard. As the experiment’s purpose is to examine the “power play” between the guards (dominant group) and prisoners, there is an existing correlation with the concept of SDO. The guards were given a lot of freedom to exercise their authority on the group of prisoners. When you hold a lot of power, you may succumb to the temptation of overexerting your influence on others and turning cruel. This behavior was shown by the guards, as they didn’t hesitate to give punishments. This implies that being part of the dominant group may cause your SDO to rise.

The prisoners’ riots can be interpreted as the lower group’s fight for a more equal society. Thus, we can infer that these people have lower SDOs after becoming victims of dehumanization. To dehumanize is to treat someone as if they were less than “human”; it is to rob them off their positive human qualities. Keep in mind that the stigma against prisoners is rather alarming. It is understandable that people would fear criminals and murderers. However, it is crucial to remember the various factors at play–one of them being institutionalized racism. This kind of racism is prevalent in social and political institutions. Its effects are reflected in employment/job opportunities, income, criminal justice, etc.

In the USA, many African Americans face harsher punishments than people with light skin (you can find multiple regional cases that corroborate this statement). People of color commit minor crimes–sometimes, no crime at all–and are sent to jail for insufferable periods of time. We may be dehumanizing people for no good reason! Society should understand that not all prisoners are the same. The erasure of this stereotype will help erase the unnecessary stigma surrounding this issue. We can ease the rehabilitation process for those in jail and let them integrate back into society through community service.

Furthermore, the dynamics between the two groups can be explored using the concept of ingroups and outgroups. When certain ingroup members oppose the harsh treatment of outgroups, the black sheep effect kicks in- they are viewed less positively, and are actively encouraged to follow the group. Other members who might not have powerful negative feelings over the outgroup are affected by the herd mentality, and conform to the movement.

Together with the Robber’s Cave experiment, the SPE explores why conflict occurs between different groups. Robber’s Cave highlights something more of a survival instinct- that once resources are limited, we will actively compete with another group to ensure we have more resources. SPE highlights how once a group has more power than the other, that group will use its greater power to step over the other group, which incites rebellions.

SPE is directly related to marginalization. The power wielded by the guards is a stark parallel to the power wielded by colonialists, slave owners and men who prevented women from entering the workforce. Even today, the same power allows blatant acts of discrimination to be swept under the rug through censorship. Additionally, the abuse faced by the prisoners is dehumanizing, which on a broader scope, is used to make marginalised communities be seen as subhuman, further justifying the discrimination heaped on by the abusers.

Flaws and Criticisms

As we all know, in the Stanford Prison experiment, the participants in the experiment itself were male college students. The main focus of the experiment was to investigate the psychological effects of perceived power, focusing on the struggles between prisoners and prison officers. However, according to an audio from the ‘Stanford Archive’, there might have been some ‘dramatic’ acting that was influenced onto the partakers.

It is rumoured that Philip Zimbardo (who lead the experiment and is now a professor of psychology at Stanford University) encouraged acting in order to make the experiment more ‘realistic’. This instruction instantly puts into question of the motivation of the prison guards abusive behaviours.

It was alleged that Philip told the prison guards to act “tough” towards the prisoners. Guards are also given the impression that they were not subjects of the study, but there to get a reaction out of the prisoners. Dave Eshelman, the study’s most infamous guard, explains that “[the guards] were never led to believe that [they] were part of the experiment.” This forms ‘demand characteristics’ in which the subjects of Zimbardo’s experiment are motivated to give experimenters what they are looking for. ‘Demand characteristics’ devalue the results of this experiment by adding an additional factor that wasn’t recognized by Zimbardo to the equation. Perhaps, it is not the prison environment that turned these individuals hostile or submissive, but rather the expectation Zimbardo puts on them; whether it be labeling individuals ‘prisoner’ or ‘guard’ or telling them to mock a prison-like environment.

In addition to that, we all know that during the prisoners time inside the prison-like basement at Stanford University, there were a lot of outbursts from the prisoners themselves. However, reporter Ben Blum - from the ‘Medium’, found out that some prisoners were not triggered by the trauma of the prison. In fact, one student prisoner (Douglas Korpi) told Mr. Blum that he faked a mental breakdown just so that he could get out of the experiment early and study for his college exams.

Furthermore, the subject group is very skewed. College students had the money incentive to join the ‘psychological study of prison life’. It is likely that participants may have an aggressive, belligerent background that attracted them to apply to a prison study. A question to consider: how did Zimbardo measure the morality of participants before and after the experiment?

Additionally, the portrayal of the ‘characters’ in the experiment itself was done very, very poorly. The reactions of the individuals to the oddly titled environment that Zimbardo created was bizarre. There was no training given to the individuals that acted as the prison guards. It received criticisms that the college students depicting the inmates lacked the experiences and expectations of being incarcerated in confinement, and that the experiment itself was unethical and inhumane.

Addressing the Flaws Through a New Design

One of the main problems with the Stanford Prison Experiment, as it states previously, is how inhumane it is. To test the power of authority, Zimbardo believed he had to use a real situation with vulnerable and powerful people. Although he was testing the power of authority in a prison situation with both prison Guards and prisoners, we believe that in reality the actual experiment was on the effect of power on the prison Guards, therefore the most crucial part of a future experiment like this would have the prison Guards situation stay the same. To ensure that you can effectively test the power of authority, you would have to still make sure that the ‘prison Guards’ believe that they are inflicting harm and are still in charge.

The Milgram Shock Experiment done in 1963 was focused on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience. He wanted to see if people would listen to authorities or their own morals. He got people to question other people, and were told to shock the people if they got the wrong answer, increasing the amount of shock and the amount of pain, as it went on. In reality, there was no shock and no pain, as the people getting ‘shocked’ were just actors.

For a new Stanford Prison Experiment for the modern age, we should combine principles from the Milgram Shock Experiment and apply it to this situation. We should inform participants that they are Prison Guards, and they can inflict shock on the ‘prisoners’. In reality, the prisoners will be actors, and will fake react to the shock. The Guards will believe that they are they doing actual harm to the ‘prisoners’, and the ‘prisoners’ will not receive any pain, therefore it is ethical and humane.

Another experiment we could do is we could do it virtually. In this way, we could test both prisoners and prison Guards, and in the same way, they can inflict pain and choose to stand up to prison Guards or listen to them. This could be like a sort of computer game. You log in, you select guard or prisoner, then you go around the prison, doing different things. If you are a prison guard, an image could appear in front of you of a prisoner knocking over dustbins, and a box pops up requesting you to select one of the two options: ‘bring this prisoner back to his cell’ ‘tell him to stop’ ‘take away his dinner’ ‘cane him’.

Beyond Character

The Stanford Prison Experiment is one of the most influential, most-cited psychological studies of all time. Its timelessness may have evolved from the value derived in its conclusion; however, how true is this very source of credibility? From moral issues to flaws in several supposedly controlled variables, perhaps the results of this experiment may not have been what people believed. Despite its imperfections, this psychological study still is a culmination of several social themes that extend beyond the boundaries of an experiment.