The Stanford Prison Experiment
An online criminal justice degree is a career option that can lead to countless job opportunities. Criminal justice professionals are needed in various careers including working in the military, for the government, and in local law enforcement. The value of education gained at a criminal justice school is a great option for those who decide to make a career change. Although there are many students choosing to pursue a bachelor’s in criminal justice directly after leaving high school, the majority of individuals who are deciding on this career path are actually established professionals looking for a career change. Criminal justice is popular among this group because it gives them a chance to help people and take on an emotionally rewarding career. Additionally, learners open up the door to higher salaries. Since skillsets common in criminal justice professionals are also highly in demand, having these qualities can also provide a cushion against economic recession. For those interested in criminal justice and related fields, knowledge of the Stanford Prison Experiment can be invaluable.
What Was The Experiment?
In 1971, Stanford University held what is arguably one of the most shocking psychology experiments in American history. Known as the Stanford Prison Experiment, this classic psychology experiment simulated a prison environment in order to understand how relationships and behaviors form and develop. The experiment was initially meant to be a two-week look at what would happen when good people are placed in a position of authority over others without any controls put into place. Designed to study the psychology of imprisonment, the situations that would occur doing the simulation would cause the experiment to be ended early and would bring up profound questions about the ethics of psychological experiments involving human subjects.
Researcher, Phillip G. Zimbardo was the psychology professor carrying out the Stanford Experiment with funding by the United States Navy. Students were recruited by placing an ad in the local newspaper. Of the close to 80 applicants that applied, careful screening was done to select the 24 males who would participate in the simulation. This screening process also included eliminating those with documented psychological issues as well as individuals who had a history of drug abuse or criminal activity. The volunteers that were finally chosen represented average middle-class college students.
The volunteers were paid $15 per day and randomly assigned to be either a prisoner or a prison guard. Participants in the study had to sign a consent form agreeing to the study and agreeing to participate for its full duration. By giving these volunteers the assigned role of prisoner, the experiment hoped to understand how perception of roles or labels, either prisoner or guard could affect behavior to see if prisons and guards would begin to forget that they were in a simulated environment and act the way that prisoners and guards would in real life prisons.
The setting for the prison guard experiment was the basement of the school’s psychology department. Doors with steel bars were installed and an intercom system was utilized to further simulate a typical prison environment. A solitary confinement area, simply a small closet, was also included. The researchers videotaped the events that occurred and recorded conversations between prisoners in their cells, to gather research data. No clocks were on the walls and the dark basement setting meant the prisoners would have no windows to see out of, further enhancing the believability of their new reality.
The volunteers were mock arrested, a process which included picking them up at home, charging them with a crime, handcuffing them, and booking them before taking them to prison. As each prisoner was brought into their new accommodations, they received the typical prison experience including of being strip-searched. They were also issued their prison uniform, which consisted of a dress, stocking cap, and sandals. The researchers chose this unique uniform in order to make the male prisoners feel humiliated and humbled. The prisoners also had a chain placed around their foot, in order to make them feel their loss of freedom and the weight of their situation. To further eradicate identity, prisoners were assigned identification numbers and were only referred to by these numbers from all prisoners and guards. The jail consisted of three small cells, which could only fit the prisoners cots and three prisoners were placed in each cell.
Unlike the prisoners, however, the prison guards were given freedom. No training was given to those who performed prison guard jobs. Instead, they were allowed to enforce whatever rules they deemed necessary in order to keep the prison running smoothly. Just like the prisoners, the guards had a uniform, which helped to solidify their position within the prison. All guards wore uniforms of shirts and khakis as well as mirror sunglasses to create a consistent image of authority. Some guards followed the prison rules that had been created for the experiment while others seemed to relish the power they were given, even working overtime without pay.
The first day of the experiment passed without incident. By the morning of the second day, however, the experiment rapidly progressed into intimidation and bullying. Trouble started when all the prisoners barricaded themselves in their cells. Nine guards used fire extinguishers to halt the rebellion and began using intimidation and mind games in order to maintain control. Some prisoners were allowed to eat and wash while other prisoners were not. Prisoners quickly became distrustful of each other and guards became more dominant and aggressive, choosing to deny bathroom privileges to inmates if they so desired as well as cleaning up the prisoners and their living quarters before a planned visit with their family and friends in order to convince everyone that the experiment was pleasant. On day sixth, not even a week into what was supposed to have been a two-week experiment, the study was ended. This early cancelation was due to the escalating cruelty of the guards.
The results of the Stanford Prison Experiment have been criticized for a number of reasons. Some point out the Zimbardo advertised for those interested in participating in a study about prison life, which would be unappealing to a majority of individuals. Therefore, those that responded to the advertisement already had some interest in the idea of prison life and were not truly unbiased. Zimbardo has also received criticism for choosing to participate in the study by becoming the prison superintendent. By taking on such a role, Zimbardo removed his objectivity regarding the simulated environment and had the potential to influence the behavior of the prison guards, even if he did not act on it. Zimbardo was also critiqued for the ethical implications of subjecting volunteers to such severe emotional strain.
Later ethical guidelines were changed to prevent experiments such as the Stanford prison guard experiment from occurring again. For those interested in learning how to become a prison guard or pursuing an online criminal justice degree, however, the issues and actions that occurred among the prison guards and prisoners is still relevant and need to be studied today. The experiment serves to remind those attending a criminal justice school or studying psychology about the horrors that can occur when power goes unchecked, and it can provide motivation for changing the criminal justice system for the better.
• Ethics & Law Enforcement
• History’s Most Controversial Psychology Study Turns 40
• How Did The Stanford Prison Experiment Get Out Of Hand?
• Lessons From The Experiment
• Discussion Questions
• Stanford Prison Experiment Consent Form