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Zimbardo… When representation becomes reality…. “Stanford Prison Study”

by on November 5, 2012

(This is rather long… however very interesting and worth a read!)

Since we discussed “A fake hold up of a bank” in lectures I have been thinking about certain moments when representation becomes reality, and exploring the fact that as soon as we simulate such a thing it becomes a reality.

It was last night when my flat mate mentioned Phil Zimbardo; I could not believe that I had not thought of this before.  Phil Zimbardo is a psychologist and a professor at Standford University., and is most famously known for his “Stanford prison study”.  Zimbardo conducted this study in which 24 clinically sane individuals were randomly assigned to be “prisoners” or “guards” in a fake dungeon which was located in the basement of the phycology building at Standford University.  The study was planned to proceed over the space of two weeks but was cut short after six days due to emotional trauma being experienced by the participants. The participants quickly began acting out their roles, with the “guards” becoming sadistic and “prisoners” showing extreme passivity and depression.

All volunteers had responded to an advertisement in a local paper. A simulated prison was set up and they were watched and notes were made on the effects of the institution and the behaviour of all those within it’s walls.  The study began with an average group of healthy, intelligent, middle class males. The decision to whom would be guards or prisoners was random.

Below I will give a breakdown of what happened over the six days (bearing in mind that the participants had no idea when or how the social experiment was going to start)

On a quiet Sunday morning in California a police car swept through the town picking up college students as part of a mass arrest for violation of codes, armed robbery and burglary. The suspect was picked up at his home, charged, warned of his legal rights, searched and handcuffed.  Neighbours who had no idea of the social experiment looked on with curiosity.

The suspect was taken to the station, formally booked in, warned of his Miranda rights, finger printed and complete identification was made. He was then taken to the holding cell where he was left blindfolded. (This for me is where I already start questioning the social experiment, the “Prisoner” knew that he was part of a social experiment but still would have felt fear, confusion and was starting to feel distressed)

 The rest of the “Prisoners” were arrested and bought into the station, and then one by one were taken into the jail (There were no windows or clocks to judge the passage of time)  and greeted by the warden, who conveyed the seriousness of their offense and their new status as prisoners.

The Degradation Procedure

Each prisoner was searched, and stripped naked. Then deloused with a spray to convey the belief that he may have had germs or lice,



(What i found interesting whilse researching this, was that i had to constantly remind myself that it was a social expereiment and not real life)

Each prisoner was then issued a uniform, a prison ID number and a chain on their right ankle.The chain was to remind prisoners the opressiveness of their enivirment, even when sleeping.


“The Guards”

These volunteers were given no specific training on how to be a guard, so in some ways they were free to do whatever they wanted with the prisoners. They made up their own set of rules.  The prisoners expected some harassment, to have their privacy violated and to get a poor diet. All of these things they agreed to in  a consent form when they volunteered. Three guards at a time would work three eight hour shifts per three prisoners in the cell.

This video shows how the “guards” treated the “prisoners”.

As “The guards” got more and more into their roles, they started to impose physical punishment on the prisoners for infraction of the rules or displays of improper attitudes. Punishments at the beginning started in the form of pushups. But the unnerving thing was as the experiment progressed and the guards forgot themselves and got power hungry the punishments got a lot worse. The first day went by without any conflict however the second day the prisoners rebelled and the guards changed their punishments. The guards used fire extinguishers (Which were simply there for fire safety during the experiment) and shot them at the prisoners.

They broke into each cell stripped prisoners naked, took their beds out and generally began to harass and intimidate the prisoners.  They later resorted to psychological punishment, treating half the group well and neglecting the other half. The intention was to break the solidarity between the prisoners.  It was this moment that it was no longer just an experiment, the guards actually saw the prisoners as troublemakers who were out to get them, believing they might actually cause some harm. This resulted in the guards stepping up their control, surveillance and aggression.  They started to control everything, even when the prisoners could go to the toilet.After 10 in the evening they could not use the toilet and have to use a bucket in their cells. Sometimes the guards would not let the prisoners empty the buckets forcing them to live amongst their own urine and faeces.

The Prisoners

 It was not just the guards getting too far into their roles; the prisoners were  too starting a rebellion forming  . However less than 36 hours into the experiment one of the prisoners suffered acute emotional disturbance, disorganised thinking, uncontrollable crying and rage. However the guards and even the people running the experiment believed that he was trying to con them into releasing him, that it was just another tactic. This is such a clear moment when representation has become reality, people emotions and states of mind are being messed with, totally absorbed into this scenario. It was quite a while after that they actually believed him and released him.

Visiting hours

Zimbardo and the people behind the experiment were getting increasingly worried about visiting hours, and the reaction from the friends and relatives of the prisoners. So they set up a fake atmosphere for when they came, shaving and washing the prisoners, cleaned their cells, fed them a big dinner and played music through the intercom. This made the visitors believe that it was a pleasant environment full of good humour, and a fun experience for the prisoners. Some parents were shocked at the state of their children but the guards shifted the blame on the parents saying things such as “What is the matter with your boy? Does he not sleep well? Don’t you think your boy can handle this?

The Escape

The guards overheard a discussion about the prisoners planning to escape.  The unnerving thing from Zimbardo and co was that they did not react in the proper way and like the experimental social psychologists they are; instead they reacted with great concern over the security of “The prison”, and held a meeting over how they could prevent the escape! They went to such measures that they called up a real police department and asked if they could have their “Prisoners” moved to their actual jail. Their request was turned down leaving them feeling angry and disgusted. (They were all totally in their role and forgot the reason behind their social experiment)



Reality hits them…

Zimbardo was sitting in his office alone when a Yale graduate roommate walked in and asked “What’s the independent variable in this study?” Zimbardo responded in an angry manner and then realised how far he had taken the experiment “I was thinking like a prison superintendent rather than a research psychologist.”

 “Listen, you are not #819. You are [his name], and my name is Dr. Zimbardo. I am a psychologist, not a prison superintendent, and this is not a real prison. This is just an experiment, and those are students, not prisoners, just like you. Let’s go.”


It was when a catholic priest was invited to the prison to judge how realistic it was that the reality of the situation and how far it had been taken hit home. The priest interviewed each prisoner individually, prisoners introducing themselves as numbers not their actual names. One prisoner did not want to see the priest but a doctor because he felt sick, he then broke down and cried hysterically in front of the priest, and was told he could see a doctor and remove his chain and cap. But the guards had begun a chant in disgust at such a decision “819 did a bad thing” This was repeated in unison,  prisoner 819 then changed his mind about leaving because he wanted to go back and prove to the others that he was not a bad prisoner.  Zimbardo replied with this




The man then looked like he had just woken up from a nightmare and simply replied “Okay, lets go”.

Everyone else….

The day after the incident the rest of the prisoners had their parole hearings at the end they were asked to go back to their cells and they all obeyed. Zimbardo questioned this, each prisoner obeyed even though they could have quit the experiment there and them. Why did they obey? Because they felt powerless to resist, their sense of reality had shifted, they no longer perceived their imprisonment as an experiment. The experiment only ended a few days later when parents wanted get their son out, and were told they had to get a lawyer to do so. It was this point it became clear they had to end the study; they had created an overwhelmingly powerful situation. Some of the guards started behaving sadistically, the guards at no time were late to their shifts, called in sick, left early, or demanded pay for their overtime.

There were two main reason whys the experiment was ended early both shocking .

1)      Zimbardo and co had learnedA through videotapes that in that the guards were escalating their abuse of the prisoners in the middle of the night when they thought no researchers were watching and the experiment was “off”.

2)      A PHD student was bought into conduct interviews with guards and prisoners and was outraged with what she saw (prisoners being marched on a toilet run, bags over their heads, legs chained together, hands on each other’s shoulders”. This reaction called the study to a close.

A volunteer’s reactions after the experiment

“I began to feel that I was losing my identity, that the person that I called Clay, the person who put me in this place, the person who volunteered to go into this prison — because it was a prison to me; it still is a prison to me. I don’t regard it as an experiment or a simulation because it was a prison run by psychologists instead of run by the state. I began to feel that that identity, the person that I was that had decided to go to prison was distant from me — was remote until finally I wasn’t that, I was 416. I was really my number.”

My research in to this literally made me feel very strange the fact that it had been conducted and allowed to be taken that far. The aim of the experiment was to investigate how readily people would conform to the roles of a guard and prisoner in a role play that simulated real life, and it produced shocking results. Zimbardo was interested in finding out whether the brutality reported among guards in American prisons was due to the sadistic personalities of the guards and the prison environment. The representation of a prison turned into a reality for all those involved, the volunteers were allowed to put their hands up during the experiment and say they did not want to proceed but none did because they were fully absorbed into the fake set up they were living in.



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One Comment
  1. Oh gosh this is very long, sorry gang x

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