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A Psych Experiment That Went Bad

By Edited Sep 18, 2015 0 0

prison
We all know that our behavior is a consequence of the sum of our experiences. We become who were are because of what we have learned and where we have been. In studying this ideology, Dr. Philip Zimbardo, a Psych Professor at Stanford University, wanted to study the effects of prison life on prisoner and guards. He was interested in seeing if people put in predefined roles would internalize these roles, or would they remain true to their own morals and character. From out of this curiosity, the Stanford Prison Experiment was conceived. Unfortunately for the participants this was a psych experiment that went bad.

In 1971, the Psych department placed ads in the local paper for people to participate in this study for a compensation of $15.00 per day for 14 days. Out of 70 responses, 24 people where chosen to participate based on their mental and physical stability. These people consisted of intelligent middle class white males with no history of drug or criminal problems. Out of these 24, it was decided by the flip of a coin, who would be the guard and who would be the prisoner. Guards were given special instructions that they were not to inflict personal injury, however, they should do whatever they felt necessary to dehumanize and demoralize the prisoners. Zimbardo was to be the superintendent and a research assistant David Jaffe, the warden.

It was on a Sunday morning without warning the participants where picked up under the pretence of an armed robbery and burglary charge. They were then handcuffed, arrested, searched, read their Miranda rights. They were then hauled off to jail by the Palo Alto police at the dismay of onlookers. After arriving at the police department they were booked, photographed, fingerprinted, and placed in a holding cell blindfolded pending their transfer to a makeshift prison located in the basement of the Psych building.

This makeshift prison was designed after Zimbardo had consulted actual convicts and got extensive advice on the interactions of prison life. The guards were outfitted with uniforms and wooden batons and mirrored sunglasses to prevent eye-contact with the prisoners. When the prisoners arrived they were stripped, deloused, and made to were a smock without underwear. They were also forced to wear a chain around one ankle as a constant reminder of their hopeless condition. Furthermore, a stocking was placed on their head to mimic shaving, which further depersonalized and humiliated them. Even though this is not reality in prison, this steps ensured that the participant had a sense of loss of identity, individuality, and masculinity. They also wore a number on the front and back of their smock. They were referred to as a number, called each other by a number, and before the end of the experiment, they had became a number.

Out of all the guards and prisoners, only nine of each were used for the study. There were 3 cells containing 3 prisoners per cell and a guard for each cell. The guards took eight hour shifts, and the prisoners stayed around the clock. There were no windows and no clocks in the prison. Bathroom uses were on a privileged basis and sometimes these were withheld as a form of punishment. There was a small closet that was used as solitary confinement.

The first day of confinement went pretty well, but the next morning the prisoners were awaken at about 2:30am with what was to be the first of many number counts. By the second day the prisoner barricaded their cell and cursed out the guards. The guards without direction or approval used fired extinguishers on the inmates and got them out. This was followed by harsh punishment with the confiscation of clothes, blankets, and mattresses, leaving the prisoners to sleep nude on cold floors. The mastermind behind the rebellion was placed in solitary confinement, and the harassment and intimidation of the prisoners began. The degeneration of the experiment was rapidly unfolding. Guards abused the prisoners with their power laden roles without proper guidance from those that where suppose to be studying the project. Everyone began to internalize their roles and conform to what was expected of them including Zimbardo himself. Even parents of the students and a local priest who was called in became caught up into this sadist, all consuming experiment. Some of the guards became obsessed with their new found power, and the prisoners lost all incite that this was just an experiment and that they could quit and walk away. They conformed to their oppressed confinement and depression had overtook them. It was not apparent that this study had completely gotten out of control until a woman by the name of Christina Mastack had come in to interview the prisoners and was shocked and appalled by the condition of the inmates and the morality of the study. After only 6 days the experiment ended.

Everyone involved had internalized their roles included those that were overseeing the study. Everyone was the same type of person before the study had changed depending on their specific roles. Some in power, such as the guards showed a darker side of their personality that even they weren't aware of possessing. Some of the prisoners cracked under pressure and had to be taken out of the experiment and all conformed to what was expected of them without regard to what was actually reality.

Even though their was no proper controls and it was completely unethical I believe there is a lot to be learned about the human nature of man from this experiment. We can all do things we do not think we are capable of when given the right circumstances. I think that a psych experiment that went bad like this one did is a perfect example of that.

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