In August 1971, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo led an experiment in the basement of Stanford University's Jordan Hall. The Stanford Prison Experiment, as it is now known, was supposed to investigate power dynamics and relationships in a prison setting. Using mock prisoners and mock guards all played by college-aged men, Zimbardo sought to find out if power makes people brutal and sadistic or if those qualities are intrinsic to human nature.
Explaining human behavior isn't easy and the results of the experiment revealed much more than Zimbardo or any of the 24 participants could have imagined. Over the course of six days, the experiment spiraled out of control, resulting in psychological and ethical findings that remain controversial among psychologists today.
Students Were Offered $15 Per Day To Participate In A Study About Prison Life
Seventy people applied to the ad that Phillip Zimbardo placed in the Stanford classifieds:
"Male college students needed for psychological study of prison life. $15 per day for 1-2 weeks."
Potential hires were interviewed and given personality tests. After eliminating anyone who displayed psychological problems, personality disorders, physical disabilities, or any kind of criminal or drug record, 24 white, male college students were chosen as participants. None of the students knew what, exactly, they had signed up for, but after Zimbardo and his research team randomly divided them into prisoners and guards, the experiment began on August 17, 1971.
The "Prisoners" Were Arrested And Booked By Real Cops
There were 12 prisoners and 12 guards, nine active and three alternates in each category. On August 17, 1971, the nine prisoners were arrested by police officers from the Palo Alto police department. They were taken into custody, fingerprinted, mugshots were taken, and they were blindfolded before being moved into a holding cell. Once the nine were ready to go, they were moved to the mock prison set up in the basement of Stanford's Jordan Hall, which was going to serve as the Stanford County Prison.
The Fake Prison Had A Very Real Feel To It
Researchers went all-out when they created the prison for the experiment and consulted with ex-convicts and prison officials when they designed the "cells" and the "yard." Laboratory space was converted into cells designed to house three prisoners each. The doors were barred and each cell was given a number. The "yard" was the hallway of the basement, where prisoners could walk around or exercise. Prisoners were blindfolded before being taken to the bathroom and a closet was used as "solitary confinement."
A Coin Toss Determined Who Would Be Prisoners And Who Would Be Guards
Participants were sorted into two groups and a single coin toss determined their fates: one group was assigned to be the prison guards, the other group was assigned to be prisoners.
Prisoners were stripped, deloused, and given numbered uniforms, essentially ill-fitting smocks with no underwear. They were also given stocking caps, sandals, and a chain was placed on each one of their legs. The stocking caps were made of nylons and were used in lieu of shaving the prisoners' heads. Prisoners were only addressed by their identification numbers and could only refer to themselves and others the same way. From the outset, prisoners were dehumanized, de-gendered, and reminded of their oppressed status.
Guards, however, dressed like real prison guards; wearing khakis and donning whistles, nightsticks, and wearing "Cool Hand Luke"-style mirrored sunglasses to prevent eye contact with prisoners.