This is the third part of Sanity vs Insanity. You can read the first discussion on what define sanity and insanity here. The second Sanity vs Insanity post is where I explained the Rosenhan Experiment, on how psychiatrists distinguish sane from insane. Find it here.
Last week I described Rosenhan’s experiment which is very aptly called “On being sane in insane places”. The next study could have had the same title. This study has been just as influential as Rosenhan’s study, perhaps even more so, especially in criminology.
The Stanford Prison Experiment
There are many “nutcases” held in prison. The prevalence of psychopathology in inmates is unusually high (compared to the general population). Now, you might say “this is because they’re criminals, they were nuts to begin with”. But what if you turned that around? What if those criminals weren’t all that crazy, but became crazy only after having been incarcerated?
In August 1971, Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment at the Stanford University. Normally, for research, one would want to recruit a very heterogeneous group of participants (people of all demographics), because you want to be able to generalize the results. However, that was not the case for Zimbardo. Prisoners are a very homogeneous group, and so he wanted to recruit a very homogeneous group of participants. Eventually, 24 healthy and psychologically stable, male students agreed to participate on the study. They would be incarcerated in a fake prison for a fortnight and Zimbardo would play the role of Prison Superintendent during that time.
Roles of inmates and officers were assigned randomly and the students adapted unexpectedly well.
The first day was uneventful, but already on the second day, a riot broke out among the prisoners. The guards realized they couldn’t handle the prisoners on their own and asked the other officers to work an extra shift to help them. They attacked the prisoners with fire extinguishers. Because they couldn’t have all officers present at all times, they decided they had to use psychological methods to control the prisoners.
They created the “privilege cell”, where those who did not participate in the riots could go in, and they would get better food than the other inmates. However, those in the privilege cell would refuse the food to stay uniform with their fellow prisoners.
The first release
Only after 36 hours, one of the prisoners started to act “crazy”.
“#8612 then began to act crazy, to scream, to curse, to go into a rage that seemed out of control. It took quite a while before we became convinced that he was really suffering and that we had to release him.”
The officers made the prisoners use their prison numbers as their new identities. They were forced to constantly count off to learn their numbers, and if they made errors, the officers would (physically) punish them. The guards refused the prisoners to urinate or defecate, they weren’t allowed to empty their sanitation buckets and they would take away their mattresses (which was a coveted item).
The officers became increasingly cruel as the experiment continued, and approximately 1/3 of the prisoners showed real sadistic tendencies.
A newly admitted stand-by prisoner expressed concern about his fellow inmates to the guards. They responded with abuse. When at one point 416 refused to eat his sausages, the guards confined him in a closer without light (called “solitary confinement” by the guards). The guards turned the other prisoners against 416, and they were instructed to pound on the closet door and shout at him. The guards told that the only way 416 could be released was if they gave up their blankets, which none but one did.
Zimbardo, the Superintendent
Much like the guards and prisoners, Zimbardo too was absorbed by his role as superintendent entirely. On the fourth day of the experiment, the prisoners talked about trying to escape from the fake prison. Zimbardo and the guards tried to move the prisoners to a more secure location, a local police station, but the authorities there refused to cooperate.
Only when Zimbardo’s girlfriend, Christina Maslach, a graduate student who was introduced to the experiment to conduct interviews with the participants, asked him about the morality of the experiment, did he realize they were going much too far. On the sixth day, out of fourteen, the experiment was called off. Maslach was the only person out of 50 who had seen the prison who questioned its morality.
After the experiment
Most of the guards were upset the experiment was ended only after six days and according to Zimbardo, the prisoners had internalized their role as prisoners entirely. They were offered parole, and all of them accepted it even with the condition of forfeiting the experiment-participation pay. When their parole was denied, none left the experiment. They didn’t have any reason to stay with the experiment after having lost any form of compensation, but because they were convinced they were prisoners, they stayed.
The Power of Authority
The Standford Prison Experiment was done to illustrate the power of authority, cognitive dissonance and to prove the obedience and impressionability of people when provided with a legitimizing ideology and social and institutional support.
Zimbardo concluded that the experiment supports social attribution rather than dispositional attribution: the situation caused the participants’ behavior, and not something related to their individual personalities.
Shortly after the results of this study were published, there were bloody revolts in two prisons in the US.
This experiment, like Rosenhan’s, was declared unethical (for all participants, not just the prisoners). This study too has never been reproduced.
Das Experiment and The Lucifer Effect
The German movie Das Experiment is based on the Stanford Prison Experiment. It’s a brilliant movie and I would recommend everyone to watch it, especially if you’re interested in learning more about this experiment (although the movie is not 100% in line with the experiment itself, of course). (Wow, Amazon does not sell this movie new *gasp*).
Philip Zimbardo published a book called “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil” only a few years ago.
Part of the excerpt:
As part of this account, The Lucifer Effect tells, for the first time, the full story behind the Stanford Prison Experiment, a now-classic study I conducted in 1971.
How and why did this transformation take place, and what does it tell us about recent events such as the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses in Iraq? Equally important, what does it say about the “nature of human nature,” and what does it suggest about effective ways to prevent such abuses in the future?