Conformity and Obedience in the Stanford Prison Experiment


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Conformity and Obedience in the Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford prison experiment is one of the most infamous experiments in the field of psychology. It was carried out during the summer of 1971. It was a 14-day simulation of a prison environment meant to evaluate the impact of situational variables on the behaviors and reactions of participants. Twenty-four students were placed in a prison simulation and the experiment meant to last for two weeks was terminated after only six days following the impact it had on both prisoners and guards. After Milgram’s experiment rocked the world of psychology many people were left with questions about obedience, power dynamics and abuse of power. Phillip Zimbardo, a professor at Stanford, decided to explore the questions further with a grant from the navy, he set up the Stanford prison experiment. He sought to find out whether a person’s role influences their behavior.

Participants were recruited via an ad from the local community and would be paid $15 a day. Zimbardo and his team started by interviewing 70 participants at Stanford who were willing and narrowed them down to 24 individuals as they preferred the brightest and most mentally sound. After that they randomly assigned 12 to the role of guard of prisoner and 12 to the role of guard. They set a basement at Stanford to resemble a real prison as they were keen to make a simulation. The prisoners were arrested in public, booked, fingerprint taken, and stripped search. They assigned them numbers to maintain anonymity. Guards were free to treat the prisoners as they pleased; the only rule was that they could not hit them or place them in solitary confinement for more than one hour. Prisoners were allowed o write letters to their visitors and make cases to the parole board. Guards subjected them to degrading tasks such as push-ups and it did not take long for them to start abusing their powers. After one day, a guard at beaten a prisoner with a night stick. The second day prisoners tried rebelling and their peds were taken away. Prisoners shot a guard with an extinguisher and guards resulted to psychological and physical abuse including sleep deprivation, intimidation, and placing bags over their heads.

If I were a guard participating in the Stanford Prison Experiment, I would have become the strict kind of guard. I feel I would be the strict type because, in that situation I would have to behave as if I am dealing with hardcore criminals. At the end of the prison, is a rough place to be and as a guard acting soft on the prisoners would not be the way to go. I would ensure I do my job well but without enforcing violence on the prisoners. I would only act within the restrictions of the law as I realize that such actions tend to have a negative effect on the prisoners’ mental health.

If I were a prisoner, I would have behaved just like other criminals are likely to behave while in prison. At the end of the day, prison is all about survival. A lot of things happen in prison, people die while serving jail terms due to violence. I would do whatever is necessary to survive. I would behave within the confines of the law, I do not think I would go the extent of hurting another person unless they pick on me first. I am unsure about this because I have not yet been in such a situation.

There are various ethical issues surrounding the Stanford prison experiment. They were not provided protection from psychological and physical harm. They were placed in ultimate discomfort and danger during the experiment, and the ultimate damage they went through was not foreseen. One of the APA ethical standard codes is against researchers avoiding or minimizing harm where unavoidable. However, the participants in the Stanford experiments were subjected to emotional trauma, with the first prisoner released just 36 hours into the experiment due to uncontrollable crying and screaming. Another ethical issue is that Zimbardo admitted to not having experience about prisons which goes against the standard on competence and boundaries that warrant researchers to do studies within the scope of education, skill, and trainings.