Behind the Mirror Shades: a bad six days in the 70’s

In the 1970s Phillip G Zimbardo a professor of Psychology at Stanford University put an ad in the paper offering $15 a day for two weeks for respondents to help understand the psychology of imprisonment, 70 people responded to that add. A few days later, these people woke up to a police man knocking on there door, and hand cuffs on the wrists as they were charged with armed robbery and driven away to the local police station for processing much to the bewilderment of their friends and neighbors. What the students did not know was a corridor in the bottom of the Stanford psychology departments basement had been transformed into their new. A number of rooms in this corridor had been converted into makeshift cells, and the hall itself was the yard of the prison. Thanks to the flip of a coin the participants collected earlier were broken into two groups: Guards and Prisoners. There were no windows or clocks, there was a video camera taping the entire experiment and thanks to the PA system the conversations of the prisoners were bugged and announcements handed down to the prison population. After arriving in the “Stanford Prison” each prisoner met the warden, then was taken for further processing by being stripped and deloused with a spray. Prisoners were then given dresses or smocks with no undergarments and chained about the right foot and issued a woman’s stocking to wear as a cap all of which were to be warn at all times during the experiment. It was said that after being given these things the subjects were said to walk and sit and carry themselves differently, in many cases more like women. The guards were then set about the task of doing what ever they felt to maintain law and order with no proper training on how to be prison guards. Yet thanks to the conformed consent agreement the prisoners were subject to many of the abject cruelties of real prison life. The experiment continued with nine wardens and nine guards.

The experiment had the guards preform regular “counts” of the inmates who had to recite their numbers when prompted and were only allowed to speak of themselves or one another as their ID numbers. When ever an inmate was thought to be breaking the rules and acting improperly they were forced to do push-ups, much the way. After a first day without any problems the second morning the prisoners began to rebel, they took off their caps and barricade themselves in their cells cursing the guards, the guards then tripled their man power and sprayed the inmates with a fire extinguisher before attacking them and stripping them naked and forcing the ring leaders into solitary confinement.

The guards did unbelievable things to the prisoners they would choose who got a bed or not, who ate and who did not, after ten o’clock prisoners were not allowed to the restroom anymore, they were forced to relieve themselves in a bucket in their selves, which the guards when then choose to empty or not. Thirty six hours into the study one of the inmates began to have an emotional break down with uncontrollable crying and aggression yet the professors doing the study were so enveloped by their roles as prison wardens that they believed they were being conned by the prisoner and refused to let up or have him released. When they interviewed that prisoner during the experiment they made fun of him for his “weakness” and told him he could expect extra torture from the guards. Eventually he began to act so wildly and out of control that he was removed from the study and replaced with a new inmate who started the rebellious behavior all over again, except this time without the solidarity that the first rebellion enjoyed. However the largest problem came from not only the unethical treatment of the subjects, but in the experiments inclusion of themselves in the experiment as shown in this excerpt from the experiments website:

The next major event we had to contend with was a rumored mass escape plot. One of the guards overheard the prisoners talking about an escape that would take place immediately after visiting hours. The rumor went as follows: Prisoner #8612, whom we had released the night before, was going to round up a bunch of his friends and break in to free the prisoners.

How do you think we reacted to this rumor? Do you think we recorded the pattern of rumor transmission and prepared to observe the impending escape? That was what we should have done, of course, if we were acting like experimental social psychologists. Instead, we reacted with concern over the security of our prison. What we did was to hold a strategy session with the Warden, the Superintendent, and one of the chief lieutenants, Craig Haney, to plan how to foil the escape.

The experiment became so out of control that after one inmate had his parole denied he broke out into a psychosomatic rash because of his inability to leave that situation.

Now I must say I adore this experiment in a very macabre fashion. It is the ultimate test, and the ultimate representor of just what is possible with the human mind at its center. It is a horrible representation of adaptation and what the human system can and will do to cope and make sense of the environment around it. That being said no experiment should ever go to the lengths that the Zimbardo experiment went to. The Experimenters lost objectivity and became too involved with both their experiment and the ideas it embodied. They became so drawn in that it began to cause physical and mental harm to the people in the experiment with nearly half of the prisoners showing pathological reactions to the environment they were in. The experiment could of done irreparable harm to the prisoners who were so drawn into this world that they would not stop being part of the experiment simply because the experimenters told them to return to their cells. They were completely compliant to everything the experimenters said, even if it was detrimental or degrading to them. Experimenters must remember to keep objectivity, and the experiment in mind, they must make sure that no damage is done to the subjects. This is a very shocking experiment that shows just how bad and out of control a charged, controlling situation can become. It is a lesson to all experimenters in what not to do.

One thing to take home, after all that happened all these horrible things that occurred, only 5 days passed. All this happened by normal people in less then a week!

This entry was posted in #5. Ethical research methods, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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