Presentation: Stanford prison experiment
The Stanford prison experiment was a small-scale simulation of a prison environment, where 24 college males were selected to play either the role of a prison guard or an inmate. Philip Zimbardo organized the experiment with the hope of proving that sadistic tendencies in prison could be traced back to personality traits. After a relatively tame first day, a riot broke out on the second day, after which the actors of either role began to deeply absorb their new identities. Prisoners, when given the opportunity to leave, would remain in the mock jail. Guards became increasingly sadistic and worked together to humiliate the prisoners. For example, the guards simulated homosexual sex with some of the prisoners, forced some to sleep on the concrete floor, forced others to give up their mattresses to free an inmate in solitary confinement, and removed the waste buckets from some of the cells, causing conditions to rapidly deteriorate. After a visiting graduate student called attention to the poor conditions of the experiment, it was shut down after only 6 days instead of the original intended 14.
The experiment has been criticized on a number of grounds, particularly the deterministic nature of the roles. Individuals tended to conform to roles based on hat was expected of them; for example, one of the guards imitated the warden from Cool Hand Luke. Also, language used to describe the experiment may have primed the behavior of the participants, as the setting of the prison likely did as well. Criticisms published in several leading psychology journals challenged the experiment’s conclusions that people slip mindlessly into roles and points out the importance of a leader, in this case, Zimbardo, in the development of tyranny, thus suggesting that Zimbardo’s briefing of the guards also primed them for sadistic action.