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

Updated August 16, 2019 153.9k 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 One: The Participants Are Arrested And Jailed

    The Palo Alto police arrested nine young men at their residences and charged them with burglary and armed robbery in front of visibly shocked onlookers. These volunteers, cast in the role of prisoners, later arrived at the Palo Alto police department for regulation bookings. They were fingerprinted and read their Miranda rights.

    Meanwhile, in the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department's building, three young men randomly assigned as prison guards prepped for the arrival of the inmates. They donned their chosen uniforms but were not given any specific instructions on how to be guards.

    The inmates were brought down to the makeshift prison. It was a single corridor in the basement of Stanford University's psychology building re-purposed to be the only location the prisoners could walk around outside of their cells. It was renamed "The Yard." Along the corridor, some rooms had their doors removed and replaced with bars and numbers to serve as cells. Opposite the cell was previously a closet, which was renamed "The Hole" and used as solitary confinement. 

    Each prisoner stripped off their clothes, received a delousing spray, and changed into a prison shift with a number sewn on it. In lieu of shaving their hair, they covered their hair with stocking caps.

    At this time, some of the guards on duty mocked the genitals of prisoners, something they were not instructed or prompted to do. With the rules of the prison presented to them, the inmates retired to their cells for the rest of the first day of the experiment.

  • Day Two: The Prisoners Rebel

    The prisoners were only referred to as identification numbers and confined to their small cells. After a full day and a 2:30 am wake-up call of whistles and clanging from guards, many of the inmates rebelled. In an effort to reassert their independence, prisoners refused to leave their cells to eat in The Yard. The men ripped off their inmate numbers, took off their stocking caps, and hurled insults and obscenities at their guards.

    In response, the night shift guards remained at work with the morning shift, and three more guards came in from a pool of remaining volunteers for the experiment. The guards sprayed fire extinguishers at the prisoners, forcing them to back away from their cell doors. The guards entered and reasserted control. They removed all of the prisoners' clothes and mattresses, and instigators received time in The Hole.

    The guards attempted to dissuade any further rebellions through the use of psychological warfare.

  • Day Three: The Guards Divide The Prisoners Based On Behavior During The Rebellion

    In order to cut off further acts of disobedience, the guards granted prisoners who had minimal roles in the rebellion with special privileges as a reward. The three spent time in a cell where they received clothing, beds, and food denied to the rest of the jail population.

    After an estimated 12 hours of time in the "good" cell, the three prisoners went back into the cells that lacked beds and switched places with a new set of inmates, sowing the seeds of mistrust among the formerly aligned prisoners.

    The guards used their power to humiliate the inmates by having them count off and do pushups arbitrarily and by rescinding access to the bathrooms, forcing the inmates to answer the call of nature with a bucket in their cells. 

    During all of this, prisoner #8612 began to show signs of a mental breakdown. While all participants received assurances at the beginning that they could leave at any time, prisoner #8612 instead received an offer of less guard harassment in exchange for becoming an informant. His condition deteriorated further; he began to scream in a fit of uncontrollable rage, and after Zimbardo realized he may truly be suffering, #8612 was released.

  • Day Four: The Prisoners Divide Among Themselves

    After witnessing the guards divide prisoners based on rebellious behavior, the inmates distanced themselves from one another. The instigators of the riot believed some of the other prisoners were snitches while others saw the rebellion organizers as a threat to the status quo. No one wanted to have their sleeping cots or clothes removed again, nor did they want to spend time in The Hole.

    Prisoner #819 began crying in his cell and displaying other symptoms of distress. A real priest with experience working in prisons was brought in, but #819 declined to speak with him; instead, he asked for a medical doctor.  Zimbardo removed the young man from the experiment. While he left his cell and undressed from his prison garbs, the guards cajoled the remaining inmates into loud chants decrying #819 as a bad prisoner.

    After reassurances of his actual identity from Zimbardo, #819 agreed to leave.