Sometimes, the best way to assess how people will behave and conform within a particular environment is to create that environment and study them like you would rats in a lab. That’s exactly what happened at Stanford University in the early 1970’s, when a research group wanted to investigate the psychological effects of power and authority between prisoners and prison wardens. Today, we’ll take a closer look at how that went down, in this episode of The Infographics Show: The Stanford Prison Experiment.

The Stanford prison experiment was conducted at Stanford University between August 14th and 20th 1971, by a research group led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo who ran his experiment with a group of unsuspecting college students. It was funded by the United States Office of Naval Research as an investigation into the causes of difficulties between guards and prisoners in the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps. The aim was to investigate how readily people would conform to the roles of guard and prisoner in a role-playing exercise that simulated prison life. In particular, Zimbardo wanted to find out whether the brutality reported among guards in American prisons was due to the sadistic personalities of the guards, or whether it had more to do with the prison environment.

So how did he go about creating this laboratory prison? Zimbardo converted a basement of the Stanford University psychology building into a mock prison and then advertised for volunteers to participate in a study of the psychological effects of prison life. More than 70 applicants were interviewed and given personality tests until 24 ideal test subjects had been chosen. They were all male students who were paid $15 per day to take part in the experiment. The group was then randomly split into prisoners and guards. 1 dropped out, leaving 10 prisoners and 11 guards, and 2 reserves. The guards worked 8-hour shifts, in sets of three, and the prisoners were housed three to a cell. There was solitary confinement for prisoners who broke the rules, in an attempt to keep the mock prison as authentic as possible.

To make it even more realistic, the college students were arrested at their own homes and taken to the local police station. They were fingerprinted, photographed, and booked, before being blindfolded and driven to the psychology department of Stanford University and led to the basement prison on top of that they were then stripped naked, and had all their personal possessions removed, which were locked away. They were given prison clothes & bedding, and they were referred to by their number only. All this was done without warning, to shock the test subjects so their reactions were as if this were a real life situation and they were real prisoners.

The guards were dressed in identical uniforms, they carried a whistle around their neck and a small baton borrowed from the police. They also wore special sunglasses, so eye contact with prisoners was impossible. No physical violence was permitted but the guards were told to do whatever was necessary to maintain law and order in the prison. Zimbardo observed the behavior of the prisoners and guards as well as acted as a prison warden.

What were the results of this controversial psychology experiment? Within a few hours of the experiment beginning, some guards had already started to use their newfound authority to harass the prisoners. At 2:30 in the morning, the guards used their whistles to wake the prisoners up and do a count. This was to remind them of their number and also to demonstrate that the guards were in control. They provoked the prisoners by giving them pointless and boring tasks to accomplish, and if they disobeyed the rules at anytime, they were told to do push-ups. One of the guards stepped on the prisoners’ backs while they did push-ups, making it much harder. And being in the prison also quickly influenced the behavior of the prisoners. They gossiped to the guards about each other, and some even began siding with the guards against prisoners who did not obey the rules.

But the first day passed without too much trouble breaking out, which may have lulled the guards into a false sense of security for what lay ahead, because during the second day of the experiment, things got a little out of control. The prisoners removed their caps, ripped off their numbers, and barricaded themselves inside the prison cells by putting their beds against the door.

The guards forced the prisoners away from their cell doors by letting off a fire extinguisher. Then the guards broke into each cell, stripped the prisoners naked and took the beds out. The ringleaders of the prisoner rebellion were placed into solitary confinement and the few prisoners who did not take part were given special privileges, deliberately causing a rift in the prison population. The relationships between the guards and the prisoners started to change. As the prisoners became more dependent, the guards became more divisive towards them, in order to hold on to control.

As the experiment progressed, some prisoners faced emotional and psychological effects from the experience. Only 36 hours in and prisoner 8612 began suffering from acute emotional disturbance and disorganized thinking, which resulted in uncontrollable crying and rage. The guards told him he could not leave and he soon began to act crazy and to scream, at which point the psychologists realized they had to let him out. The guards held a visiting hour for parents and friends, exactly as would happen in a real prison.

Zimbardo also invited a Catholic priest who had been a prison chaplain to evaluate how realistic the prison setup was. The chaplain interviewed each prisoner telling them the only way they would get out was with the help of a lawyer. Half of the prisoners introduced themselves by their number rather than name. When prisoner 819 spoke to the chaplain, he broke down and began to cry hysterically. The psychologists told him to go and rest in his room before taking him to see a doctor.

Zimbardo wanted the experiment to run for two weeks, but just six days in, he had to unlock the doors. Christina Maslach, a Stanford PhD who was brought in to conduct interviews, was shocked when she saw how the prisoners had been abused by the guards. “It’s terrible what you are doing to these boys!” She said. Years later Zimbardo noted, “It wasn’t until much later that I realized how far into my prison role I was. I was thinking like a prison superintendent rather than a research psychologist.”

The experiment demonstrated that people will readily conform to the social roles they are expected to play, especially if the roles are as strongly stereotyped as those of the prison guards. In the words of Maria Konnikova, a Russian-American writer with an A.B. in psychology who writes for The New Yorker, “the lesson of Stanford isn’t that any random human being is capable of descending into sadism and tyranny. It’s that certain institutions and environments demand those behaviors and, perhaps, can change them.”

The Stanford Prison Experiment is one of the most controversial studies in the history of social psychology. It was even turned into film in 2015, starring Billy Crudup who played Philip Zimbardo.

So, how do you think you would have handled being in prison as part of this experiment? Let us know in the comments. Also be sure to check out our other video, Worst Prison Experiments Conducted on Humans. Thanks for watching and as always, don’t forget to like, share and subscribe.

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