Inside the Corridors of Power: A Comprehensive Look at the Stanford Prison Experiment

Inside the Corridors of Power: A Comprehensive Look at the Stanford Prison Experiment

In the history of psychological studies, few experiments have sparked as much intrigue, controversy, and discussion as the Stanford Prison Experiment. This landmark study, conducted in the summer of 1971, has become a key reference point in social psychology and beyond, providing unique insights into the depths of human behaviour and the power of situational forces. Here we will help demystify the Stanford Prison Experiment, exploring its structure, findings, implications, and the ensuing controversies it caused.

The Mastermind: Philip Zimbardo

The Stanford Prison Experiment was the brainchild of Dr. Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist renowned for his work on social roles, conformity, and situational forces. A professor at Stanford University, Zimbardo has dedicated his career to understanding how social environments can influence individual behaviour.

Motivated by the question of whether the brutality reported among guards in American prisons was due to the sadistic personalities of the guards or had more to do with the prison environment, Zimbardo decided to create an experiment. He aimed to investigate how readily people would conform to the roles of guard and prisoner in a role-playing exercise that simulated prison life. This experiment would come to be known as the Stanford Prison Experiment, an exploration of the darkest corridors of power and submission that still echoes in the world of psychology today.

The Setup: Understanding the Experiment Design

The Stanford Prison Experiment was designed to resemble a prison setting as closely as possible to achieve realistic conditions. A section of Stanford University's Psychology Department was transformed into a mock prison, with small, windowless rooms serving as cells and a larger space acting as the prison yard. Participants were 24 male college students with no criminal background or psychological issues, selected from 70 applicants. These individuals were randomly assigned to play either 'prisoners' or 'guards' for a period initially intended to last two weeks.

The 'prisoners' were 'arrested' at their homes without prior notice, mirroring an actual arrest's surprise element. They were booked at a real police station before being blindfolded and transported to the mock prison. Once there, they were stripped, searched, and given prison clothes and numbers, effectively dehumanising them and reinforcing their 'prisoner' roles.

The 'guards', meanwhile, were given uniforms, mirrored sunglasses, and batons, providing them with a sense of anonymity, authority, and power. Interestingly they were given no specific instructions on how to act but were told not to physically harm the prisoners.

The Unfolding: Chronicles of the experiment

As the experiment began, the transformation of these ordinary college students into 'prisoners' and 'guards' was startling. The 'guards' quickly embraced their roles, asserting dominance over the 'prisoners', who similarly fell into their submissive roles. What started as a simulation soon escalated into a distressing reality. The 'guards' began devising cruel and degrading tactics, from forcing 'prisoners' to do push-ups as a form of punishment to psychological manipulation that bred suspicion and mistrust among the 'prisoners'. On the other hand, the 'prisoners' started to show signs of severe emotional distress and passive acceptance of the 'guards' abuse.

The lines between the experiment and reality blurred rapidly. It reached a point where the 'guards' continued their shifts voluntarily and the 'prisoners' accepted their harsh treatment as an inevitable part of their 'prison' life. The transformation was so profound that the reality of the situation took hold, causing the participants to forget that it was merely an experiment.

The Early Termination: Why the Experiment Ended Sooner

The Stanford Prison Experiment was planned to run for two weeks. However, the escalating severity of the conditions and the psychological turmoil endured by the participants led to its premature termination. The reality of the situation became disturbingly clear to Zimbardo on the sixth day when an outsider, Christina Maslach, a graduate student who would later become Zimbardo's wife, was brought into the experiment to conduct interviews. Horrified by the conditions and the behaviour of the participants, she questioned the morality of the experiment, prompting a realisation in Zimbardo about the disturbing dynamics that had evolved.

Understanding the potential for long-term psychological damage to the participants, Zimbardo made the decision to end the experiment after just six days, a stark contrast to the originally planned two weeks.

The Findings: What the Stanford Prison Experiment Revealed

The Stanford Prison Experiment offered powerful insights into human nature, revealing how situational forces and perceived power could influence individuals' behaviour. The experiment's findings supported Zimbardo's initial hypothesis: the prison environment itself was the cause of the abusive behaviour, not the inherent sadistic personalities of the guards.

The participants, despite knowing they were in an experiment, internalised their roles to an alarming extent. 'Guards' exhibited authoritarian behaviour and some displayed sadistic tendencies, whilst 'prisoners' showed signs of extreme stress, anxiety, and subservience. This highlighted the strong impact of situational forces and social roles on individual behaviour.

Furthermore, the experiment illustrated the ease with which ordinary individuals could be led to behave in ways they would not have imagined, given the right (or in this case, wrong) circumstances. This raises significant questions about the malleability of human nature and the influence of social constructs and perceived power dynamics.

The Controversy and Criticism

In the years following the Stanford Prison Experiment, various criticisms and ethical concerns were raised about the study. Many critics argued that the experiment lacked validity, meaning the findings might not be applicable to real-life prison conditions due to the artificial setup of the study.

Ethical concerns were also raised, with critics arguing that the experiment caused severe distress to the participants, violating the principles of informed consent and protection from harm. Some critics suggested that Zimbardo, in his dual role as the experiment's conductor and the prison's superintendent, failed to maintain adequate objectivity, potentially influencing the outcome.

In response to these criticisms, Zimbardo has maintained that the study's findings significantly contribute to our understanding of human behaviour in response to situational forces. He acknowledges the ethical issues raised, agreeing that such an experiment would not receive approval today. However, he emphasises that the participants were debriefed, offered psychological support, and most reported no lasting negative effects.

The Legacy: Impact and Applications of the Findings

Despite the controversy, the Stanford Prison Experiment has left a mark on psychology and other social sciences. It has significantly shaped our understanding of how individuals conform to roles and how situational forces can impact behaviour.

The experiment's findings have been used to explain real-world phenomena, such as prisoner abuse and the behaviour of military personnel, think of the issue arising from the Iraq war or the conflict in Rwanda. They have also influenced the design of correctional facilities and informed debates about the nature of power dynamics and abuse in various institutions.

The Stanford Prison Experiment has also influenced other fields, including business and education. It has encouraged discussions about how hierarchy and power imbalances can influence behaviour within organisations, and how situational forces can impact learning environments.

Though the Stanford Prison Experiment is a stark reminder of the ethical considerations necessary in psychological research, its impact remains significant and far-reaching. Its findings continue to provoke thought and discussion about the depths of human nature and the power of our environments.


The Stanford Prison Experiment, despite its ethical shortcomings and ensuing controversy, has significantly shaped our understanding of human behaviour. It highlighted the power of situational forces and social roles in shaping our actions, shedding light on the dramatic shifts in behaviour individuals can undergo when placed in certain environments.

From the corridors of the mock Stanford prison, we've gained insights into power dynamics, conformity, and the influence of perceived roles, helping us understand complex societal phenomena from prison abuse to military misconduct. The experiment serves as a stark reminder of our susceptibility to situational influences and the responsibility that comes with positions of power and provokes the question, “how do I know how I would behave under such conditions?”

Further Reading

If you're interested in delving deeper into the Stanford Prison Experiment and its implications, consider exploring the following resources:

"The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil" by Philip Zimbardo - A detailed account by Zimbardo himself about the Stanford Prison Experiment and its broader implications on understanding evil and wrongdoing.

"The Stanford Prison Experiment" (2015) - A dramatic film portrayal of the experiment, offering a visual depiction of the events that unfolded.

Numerous online resources and documentaries offer varied perspectives on the experiment, its outcomes, and its ethical implications.

Remember, understanding the findings and implications of the Stanford Prison Experiment is not just about exploring the darker sides of human nature, but also about learning from the past to foster greater ethical awareness and responsibility in the future.

Photo by The DK Photography on Unsplash