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The Stanford Prison Experiment


The Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted in August 1971 by US psychologist Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University. The experiment split a group of students into two groups, attributing one group the role of guards and the other group the role of prisoners. The experiment was halted early after several ‘prisoner’ participants left. Early reports of the experiment stated that the participants quickly took to their roles. The ‘guards’ became very cruel in their treatment and inflicted psychological torture. The study was funded by the US Navy and footage from the experiment is available online.

There have been questions raised about the efficacy of these results. Zimbardo took the role of Warden and encouraged the ‘guards’ to be authoritarian and cruel in their treatment. Zimbardo claimed that the ‘guards’ assumed the roles of acting cruelly instinctively and the interpretation of this was that authority and power can corrupt usually good people. Zimbardo also reported that the ‘prisoners’ became submissive very quickly but this is contradicted by several of the ‘prisoners’ leaving the study. Zimbardo's close involvement makes any conclusions from this experiment void. It is impossible to discern what behaviour was performative for the researchers rather than actual results. Some participants reported being encouraged to “give the researchers something to work with”.

The criticism of Zimbardo experiment isn't as widely reported as the initial results of the experiment. This is a famous psychological experiment and people often remember that the ‘guards’ became cruel. The Stanford Prison Experiment is a good representation of some of the issues in psychology studies. The study was conducted on university students which isn't necessarily a representative group of people. This is common in psychology experiments because it’s the main group of people that researchers have access to, so many groundbreaking new psychology studies actually only tell us something about young adults. The initial report of the study is what most people remember about it, the criticism and follow up, or in other studies' replication that disputes the initial findings is forgotten or not reported. Nearly 50 years after the experiment it is still cited as evidence that authority and power corrupt, despite the poor methodology making all results meaningless.

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