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The Day-By-Day Breakdown Of What Happened During The Stanford Prison Experiment

Updated August 16, 2019 153.1k views7 items

In 1971, professor Philip Zimbardo put together one of the most intriguing and famous psychology experiments ever: the Stanford Prison Experiment, designed to study the effects of incarceration on prisoners and guards. Using an advertisement to recruit college-aged men in the area for a one-of-a-kind study, Zimbardo and his team hoped to remove volunteers predisposed to mental illness and those with existing records from their experiment. Nonetheless, the Stanford Prison Experiment brought out those qualities in its participants.

Originally meant to be a two-week examination of the imbalance of power and the Lucifer Effect - the ability of ordinary people to engage in evil acts - the entire experiment began unraveling from day one: August 14, 1971. While the faux prisoners were housed in a converted basement of Stanford University's psychology department, they experienced the same degradation, erasure, and humiliation felt by real inmates. Alternatively, the make-believe guards embraced their power as if it was real by forcing their prisoners to humiliate themselves and creating rules to boost their own egos.

While nothing on par with true prison stories from penitentiaries around the world happened, the Stanford Prison Experiment quickly spiraled out of control and ended on August 20, 1971. It proved how easily men could be swayed to commit evil acts when provided the power to do so and to what lengths an individual would go in order to reclaim their identity and autonomy.

  • Day Five: Outside Parties Grow Concerned About The Psychological Effects Of The Punishments 

    On the fifth day, friends and family members of the inmates were brought in for visitations. Zimbardo and the guards forced visitors to sign in and wait long periods of time to see their loved ones in order to simulate a real prison. The warden spent time with each set of family members discussing the situation of their respective inmate. Only two visitors could see any one prisoner for ten minutes at a time while a guard watched.

    Some parents asked about their children's well-being and whether they had enough to eat, but quickly backed down when Zimbardo questioned the resilience and toughness of their sons. Many parents left with plans to contact a lawyer to gain early release for their children.

    After the visiting hours ended, a rumor arose claiming inmate #8612 was set to return and liberate the remaining prisoners. But rather than investigate the source of the rumor, Zimbardo and the guards concerned themselves more with protecting the prison and ensuring none of the prisoners could escape.

    During this time, Zimbardo's colleague Gordon Bower arrived to check on the experiment and questioned the independent variable in play. Zimbardo disturbed even himself by reacting to Bower's question with anger. Even he had fallen into thinking like a prison superintendent rather than a social psychologist. 

    Furthermore, a recent PhD recipient, Christina Maslach, visited the prison to question the inmates and guards. But due to the inhumane conditions the prisoners lived in and the sadistic treatment by the guards, she spoke out about the morality of the study, prompting Zimbardo to consider ending it.

  • Day Six: All Participants Are Released Early

    Due to outrage from his colleague Christina Maslach and the increasing violence exhibited by the guards, Zimbardo ended the study more than a week early.

    On the sixth day, Zimbardo gathered the participants and let them know that the experiment was really over and they could go home. Zimbardo met with all the guards, then with all the prisoners, before everyone came together to discuss the experience. Even the participants released early from the experiment came back to go over their feelings and thoughts.

  • Day Seven: The Stanford Prison Experiment Is Closed Down Permanently

    After the experiment ended, the components of the Stanford County Jail were taken down and out of the psychology building basement. Zimbardo began compiling his data.

    After a couple of months, Zimbardo received prisoner #416's recollection of his time spent in The Hole:

    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.

    The public became aware of the experiment; many called the experiment unethical and questioned its methodology. Still, Zimbardo maintains the experiment captured the balance of power within the prison system and the ability of humans to turn on their own belief system when provided with that power.