What would happen if you contained good people in an evil place? Professor Philip Zimbardo in 1973 converted the basement of the psychology department into a prison to answer this question.
Zimbardo installed prison doors on each of three office cells, these cells had nothing but three beds and an extremely low roof. On the opposite side of the cell, Zimbardo placed a solitary confinement room which was called the “hole”. The hole was a cramped closet where prisoners would be kept for punishment. Once the door was locked, there would be nothing but darkness and a feeling of confinement.
All guards wore a uniform along with silver sunglasses. These sunglasses prevented the guards from seeing the prisoner’s eyes. Students who were given the guard role were categorized as the people in “power” over the others and in this case it was power over the prisoners. All students who participated in this experiment went through a series of psychological tests and those who were selected, were paid $15 per day, whether they were assigned to the role of guard or prisoner.
Zimbardo briefed the guards by establishing some ground rules.
- No prisoner should escape, if even one prisoner escaped, the whole experiment would fail.
- Physical violence was strictly prohibited.
- Any other method to establish fear was accepted.
Prisoners were blindfolded until they reached their cells to confuse them about their whereabouts, they were also stripped and humiliated by the guards. Zimbardo called this the degradation process which happens not only in prisons, but in any military outfit type setting.
Day 1 of the experiment was very quiet and uneventful, prisoners just sat on their beds and did not react to anything. However, on the second day, things began to change. Inmates on day 2 resisted following orders and rebelled against being anonymous. Prisoner 8612 was identified as the leader of the rebellion and as punishment, was sent to the “hole”. The guards now had to be tough and they did this by waking up the prisoners in the middle of the night and forcing them to do physical tasks such as cleaning toilets with their bare hands. Moreover humiliation was also adopted as a disciplinary tactic.
After a couple of days, prisoner 8162 approached Zimbardo to ask him if he could leave the experiment to which the professor said, he would want the prisoner to be a snitch, an informer that would give Zimbardo all the details of what the guards were up-to and if the prisoner did not like this deal , he would be able to leave.
The confused prisoner 8162 returned to his cell and told the others that no one could leave. As prisoner 8162 was the leader, all the other prisoners believed that they could not leave and this marked the turn of events – the experiment turned into a real prison for the inmates.
Prisoner 8162 pretended that he was crazy. He cursed and screamed so that the guards would believe that he was deranged and would eventually release him. His behavior was so excessive that Zimbardo decided to let him go
Prisoner 819 was the next to rebel against the harassment. He barricaded himself in his room. Zimbardo during an interview reacted by deciding to let him go. However, in the next room other inmates started shouting, “prisoner 819 is a bad man”. After hearing them scream, prisoner 819 cried and told Zimbardo that he could not leave because he was not a bad man.
Prisoner 416 went on a food strike to revolt against the torment. “I was losing my identity, I was just 416 in the prison”,he lamented. John Wayne, a guard, decided to put prisoner 416 into the “hole” and ordered the other prisoners to badger him by banging his door.
By the end of the fifth day, four prisoners had broken down and had to be released. The prisoner 416 was on his second day of his hunger strike and the experiment still had to run for nine more days.
When professor Christine Masiach, a psychologist, visited the site, she was disgusted. She lashed out at Zimbardo about how the young boys were suffering and how he was responsible for their distress. On the sixth day, Zimbardo ended the experiment and numerous debates about ethics came into question for using humans as experiment subjects.
Zimbardo’s experiment gave the world a sad message. It is expected that good people (the guards in this scenario) are in control of their bad side or are able to overcome their bad side when pushed into a bad place. However, this experiment shows us that when good people are placed in an evil setting, evil is victorious.
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What Humanity Learned From The Stanford Prison Experiment. (2018). HuffPost. Retrieved 18 February 2018, from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/what-humanity-learned-from-the-stanford-prison-experiment_us_596ff248e4b04dcf308d2a0c (Featured image)