An Overview of the Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment was a study done at Stanford University located in California. The study was done to determine the psychology behind the imprisoned and the guards who help keep them in check. One of the questions that were poised at the beginning of the experiment was would the students picked to join the experiment end up turning into the role of prisoner or guard, or would they resist. In other words, would the simulation force the subjects into the submissive and dominant roles of prisoner and guard in this small-scale simulation? The answer; absolutely.

This experiment not only forced the subjects into their predetermined roles, but it sent them to the extreme ends of the spectrum. The “prisoners” ended up broken mentally, depressed, and unable to control their emotions, often acting out at the guards as if they were really prisoners. The “guards” became incredibly cruel and began demanding the “prisoners” do meaningless tasks until they became more submissive.

The simulation was originally intended to last 14 days, but after only 6 days, the prisoners all demanded to be let out of the simulation because they mentally could no longer stand the conditions. Despite the experiment being called off early, it was considered a massive success by psychologists, and a massive failure by scientists. Part of the reason the experiment failed so quickly was because the psychologist leading the experiment, Phillip Zimbardo, also played the role of head guard. For this simulation to be successful, Zimbardo should have played an observer role and purely observed rather than join the guards sadistic behavior.

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The experiment answered many questions that psychologists had about prison and the prisoner/guard relationship. They learned that prison in its most basic form of confinement often proved far too much for the normal person to be able to withstand. They also learned that while guards are obviously not supposed to torture or demean the prisoners, they did so simply because the position of power they are placed in gives them that ability. It proved that those put in power will abuse that power every single time. The simulation even further led psychologists to understand the power struggle similarities between the prisoner/guard relationship, and the submissive/dominant relationship.

Similar to the question of if a person is given the choice to shoot themselves or shoot another person they do not know; they will almost always pick someone else because of self preservation. The experiment showed just how deep the dark and inhuman side of people begin to show when it is tested. Within one day, prisoners began to feel depressed and suffered humiliation and physical punishments by the guards who felt because of their power, they had the ability to do whatever they wanted. Within two days, the prisoners attempted a prison break, which was eventually brought down by the guards who then instituted even stricter and more humiliating rules. Each day that went by, the prisoners felt even more depressed and out of control, and the guards began to institute more and more humiliating and painful rituals. At one point, further into the simulation, a new prisoner was introduced into the simulation and eventually gets placed in solitary confinement. In order to get that prisoner out of solitary, the rest of the prisoners had to give up their blankets, a request that almost all of the prisoners refused. This and other activities that the guards forced the prisoners to partake in showed just how far into the mindset of the two roles all the students had gone. By the time the experiment was abruptly called to an end after 6 days, many of the students were depressed and mentally broken down, and the guards seemingly completely unaware of their own morals that they disregarded in order to slip into their role.

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An Overview of the Stanford Prison Experiment. (2021, Dec 21). Retrieved from

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