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The experimental study that I chose to write about is the Stanford Prison Experiment, which was run by Phillip Zimbardo. More than seventy applicants answered an ad looking for volunteers to participate in a study that tested the physiological effects of prison life. The volunteers were all given interviews and personality tests. The study was left with twenty-four male college students. For the experiment, eighteen volunteers took part, with the other volunteers being on call. The volunteers were then divided into two groups, guards and prisoners, randomly assigned by coin flips. The experiment began on August 14th, 1971 in the basement of Stanford’s psychology building. To create the prison cells for the prisoners, the doors were taken off of laboratory rooms and replaced with bars and cell numbers. There was a room especially made for solitary confinement referred to as “the hole”. There was a camera at the end of the hall to record everything that happened as well as intercom devices in the cells in order to listen in on what the prisoners were saying and make announcements to the prisoners.
Upon arrival, each prisoner was searched and stripped naked. Next came a degradation procedure that was designed in order to humiliate the prisoners and make sure they weren’t bringing in any germs. Next came the uniforms, which consisted of a smock-like dress with a prisoner identification number. The prisoners had to wear a heavy chain on their ankle at all times and they were given rubber sandals for footwear. The goal of their attire was to embarrass the prisoners and make them feel emasculated. The purpose of the heavy chain on their ankle was to be a reminder of their oppression. The prisoners were to remain anonymous and only referred to themselves and others by their ID number. As a substitute for shaving their heads, the prisoners were forced to wear a stocking cap. The act of shaving a prisoner’s head is to remove as much individuality as possible. As for the guards, they were not trained on how to act and they were told that within limits, they were allowed to do what they thought was necessary to keep order in the prison and command respect from the prisoners. The guards made up rules and the warden, an undergraduate student attending Stanford, enforced them. The guard’s attire consisted of identical khaki uniforms, a whistle, a billy club, and mirror sunglasses.
The guards asserted their power by having “counts” throughout the day and night. At first, the prisoners did not take it seriously and tried to control the prisoners through confrontation. Pushups were used as physical punishment by the guards for infractions made by the prisoners. On the second day of the experiment, the prisoners rebelled. They removed their ID numbers as well as their stocking caps and blockaded themselves inside their cells using their beds. The guards decided to use force to stop the rebellion, and used a fire extinguisher to shoot the prisoners with cold carbon dioxide. Subsequently, the guards broke into the cells and stripped the prisoners, took their beds out of the cells, and forced the leader of the rebellion into solitary confinement. The guards decided that they were going to use psychological strategies instead of physical ones. They established one of the cells as a “privilege cell”. The three prisoners who were least involved in the rebellion were allowed into the privilege cell. There, they received their uniforms, beds, and were given special privileges. The privileged prisoners were also allowed to eat in the presence of the prisoners who had lost the privilege to eat. The purpose of the “privileged cell” was to break the solidarity between the prisoners. After half a day went by, they put the privileged prisoners in the bad cell, and the bad prisoners in the privileged cell. The prisoners because distrustful of each other, while the guard’s solidarity grew. At this point in the experiment, it was no longer just a simulation. The guards saw the prisoners as troublemakers who could potentially hurt them, and as a result the guards became more aggressive towards the prisoners. Soon everything the prisoners did became a privilege, including using the bathroom. Lights were shut off at ten o’clock at night and after that point, the prisoners would be forced to use the buckets left in their cell as toilet; this further tarnished the environment of the prison.
Less than two days into the experiment, one of the prisoners began to experience rage, emotional disturbance, uncontrollable crying, began acting crazy, and screaming. The experiment leaders realized he was really suffering and they had to release him. The next day was visiting day for the parents and friends of the prisoners. In order to stop parents from taking their children home, the experimenters cleaned the prison and the prisoners to make them seem pleasant. After the parents visited, there were rumors going around that the prisoners were going to attempt to escape. After the rumor was proved to be untrue, guards acted harshly towards the prisoners and added punishments. A priest who visited the prison, talked with prisoners and offered to contact some of their families for legal help. By day five, there were three types of guards; tough but fair guards, good guards, and hostile guards.
The study was cut short on August 20th, 1971. Prisoners began to break down emotionally and they tried to find ways to cope with it. The guards had total control of the prison and the prisoners had become isolated individuals. The experiment ended when parents were contacting lawyers to get their sons out. At that point, it became clear to the experiment leaders that they needed to end the experiment. The guards had become sadistic and the prisoners were acting in pathological ways. The study ended prematurely due to the escalated abuse of the prisoners in the middle of the night when they thought no one was watching because the experiment was “off”. Another factor contributing to the end of the experiment was a visit by psychologist, Christina Maslach. She was the only visitor out of about fifty who questioned the morality of the experiment after seeing the prisoners being marched to the toilets, with bags over their heads, their legs chained together, and hands on each others shoulders. The experiment was intended to last two weeks, but ended on the sixth day.
The experiment was performed in order to investigate the causes of conflict between guards and prisoners. The United States Navy and Marine Corps were both interested in the experiment and the United States Office of Naval Research funded it. The hypothesis being tested by Zimbardo was that the inherent personality traits of prisoners and guards are the chief cause of abusive behavior in prison. Zimbardo designed the experiment in order to induce depersonalization, disorientation, and deindividualiztion in the volunteers. This experiment does not fit in with other work in the field of psychology because the conditions the participants were living in was inhumane and the experiment leaders didn’t realize this until someone outside of the experiment pointed it out; it was an extremely unethical experiment. This experiment left many of the participants emotionally traumatized and it is often compared to the Milgram experiment, which was performed a decade earlier. As a result of the layout of the experiment, Zimbardo found it difficult to keep conventional scientific controls in place and did not remain a neutral onlooker. One of the critics of this experiment, Eric Fromm, challenged the generalization of the experiment’s results.

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