Stanford Prison Experiment (p.313):
Four quotes at the beginning of the essay: introduce main themes and ideas of the
1. What you desire is something that you may not necessarily REALLY want, but if you’re
told that you can’t have it, you want it all the more. What you really want is in some
way determined by the situation that you find yourself in. What you want is socially
2. Why is it that when power is exerted over another person, it’s usually to force them to
do something they don’ t want to do rather than to try and help them along and
3. The prison is not simply built to keep bad guys in, but also to hide what goes on inside
in the prison from the outside world. IMPORTANT
4. Prison is not simply a place made out of metal and concrete, it can also be a
psychological situation as well and that’s what Zimbardo explores.
(First few paragraphs, setting the scene.)
The process of becoming a prisoner, the idea that if you become a prisoner, you don’t
just go to jail; you have to go through a sort -of process that marks you as a prisoner. The
process: “… stripped naked, skin -searched, deloused and issued a uniform, bedding,
soup and towel.”
Thesis statement in a “nut-shell”: An experimental mock prison, created by social
psychologists to study the effects of imprisonment upon volunteer research subjects .
Zimbardo is going to focus on both sides (prisoners and guards)
Next question Zimbardo tries to tackle : “Why not just go into a real prison? Why go
through the bother of setting up a mock prison?”
First Reason: Because you can’t be objective, prisons are dangerous places, can’t go
wander around prison cells, showers, exercise yard… Constantly, led under the watchful
eye of the guards, they will let you see certain things and won’t let you see other things.
Can’t get the overall snapshot of what goes on in a prison.
Second Reason: Important distinction. In a real prison, you don’t know who already has
perhaps a mental illness, you don’t know who may already have psychologi cal
problems, controls, issues or know who may be healthy or unhealthy, both mentally or
physically. Can’t control for any of that. The experiment wants to find out the effect
that the prison has on the individual, they have to try and control for the situation. Need
to be able to say, “Who is already unwell, who is already unstable?” You can’t tell what
the prison environment is doing to a person like that, because it could be their
underlying mental conditions. Have to find a way of separating that out. C an’t control
who’s in prison for what, and what conditions they have, so need to set up a mock
prison to effectively measure the effect of prison on an individual.
How does he control his experiment? 1. Screen the volunteers for “normal-average” people, all the people with the
underlying issues, problems, and illnesses are weeded out , screened out, and taken out
of the picture. (Very important) In other words, everything that happens in the
experiment, every change in behavior, and every change in personality is the result of
being in the social situation , and not due to underlying factors.
Experiment takes place in 1973, and volunteers getting paid $15 for their participation.
2. Randomized Selection: “Flip of a coin,” shows that the se lection of who is going to
become a guard, who is going to become a prisoner is randomized; t o make both
groups as equal as possible . Both groups are identical, so any change in behavior is a
result of the social environment into which they are employed. 10 prisoners, 11 guards
Two-weeks planned experiment; however, does not get that far for important
reasons discussed later.
Zimbardo, who is carrying out the experiment, is in the experiment, part of the
experiment. This is going to be a problem.
Zimbardo should have asked a colleague to look over the entire experiment
OR stepped out of the experiment himself and hired a “superintendent”
How to Reproduce the Psychological Effects of Imprisonment?
In this important section, Zimbardo lays out what he tried to do in order to reproduce
the psychological effects of imprisonment. He’s up against various problems; there are
certain things he can’t do in his mock prison (later discussed). The major problem is that
the experiment is supposed to last two -weeks maximum. “How can you produce the
same feelings of a person in prison in somebody who knows that they are getting out in
two-weeks?” Zimbardo has to try and mimic certain psychological effects, and they
way he does that is very interesting… A simulatio n.
Zimbardo and his team look not only at prisons, but concentration camps that tend to
become horrific places. He sees the sort of parallel between a prison and
“Emasculated,” to have your manhood removed, synonym for castration. Th e way he
tries to reproduce this in prisoners is very interesting.
Some things they simply couldn’t reproduce in the mock prison (ie. rape, racism,
physical brutality). In many ways, the experiment has to reproduce some of these
effects without actually going near those kinds of things.
Important point, because Zimbardo will talk about a prison as a sort of place where the
human conception of time is interrupted . What he seems to mean is that, when you go
to prison, who you were in real life beforehand d oesn’t matter anymore (ie. who your
friends were, who your relationships were with, your family). Can’t take that to the
prison with you. Your identity up to that point is essentially gone. This is why the start of
anonymity is what Zimbardo talks about, you have to sort of win and create yourself anew in a very complex and tough environment. Your sense of your past can’t come
with you. Time and anonymity come into tangle with each other, as we will see later…
Emasculate & Anonymity: Nylon stocking caps, hide hair colour, strip away any
identifying features (a first step in doing that). Smocks, used to reproduce
emasculation, so the male prisoners had to wear dresses (no underwear on
underneath), so forced to move in ways more feminine. What Zimbardo suggests here is
that what we take to be femininity is in large part due to the dress, how a dress makes a
person move, and makes femininity. He says, “you can be a man wearing a dress and
you will start to have more feminine gestures and actions. ” Doesn’t dwell into too much
detail, but is interesting how clothes really shapes how a person moves and of course,
gender is a very important way in which people tend to separate each other out.
Clothing has a lot to do with femininity.
This childlike dependency then, also goes back to feeling of helpless. They reproduce
helplessness in the prison by making them ask for everything . They can’t do anything
without getting permission and because they are treated like children, then they start to
In sum: emasculated by wearing feminine clothing, anonymzyed by losing their names
and their hair colour, and individuality, and child -like part. The way they try to
reproduce these sorts of feelings in the prisoners.
The smell is important; Zimbardo is pointing this out because he is suggesting that the
guards were willing to put up with the smell, because it was a marker of their authority .
By denying the prisoners the ability to clean their toilets out, that meant th at they were
showing their power as guards. Their role as guards and the power they feel overcomes
the feeling of disgust that they might have and a really bad smell in the prison.
Zimbardo drops in these details that are actually very telling about the si tuation.
The Dislocation of Time
Zimbardo is saying, who you were in the past doesn’t matter when you go to prison,
what your future is going to be doesn’t really matter; your stuff in the now is what’s
important. The way he tries to reproduce this in the mock prison is by having a
windowless prison , they don’t know what time of say it is. Clever way of reproducing the
sense that time gets dislocated.
Boredom of Guards
The guards in the prison got bored; they had to fill their time up, by turning the 10
minutes of the count into something that lasted for hours. They had the power to make
the prisoners perform, because they were bored. Boredom turns the guard into
individuals who create really disagreeable tasks. Boredom of guards is an important
point. Break up Prisoners Solidarity
Zimbardo makes this point several times: the idea that the guards main purpose seems
to be to break up prisoners solidarity, the idea that the prisoners would all plan togeth er.
He further clichéd, “ divide and conquer .” Which is essentially what the guards do.
Because they are constantly playing on the differences between the prisoners, the
prisoners can’t trust each other. And because they can’t trust each other, they can’t
confide each other, so if they wanted to say, get a rebellion up and going, they
couldn’t do it, because they don’t know whom to trust.
Markers of Power: Silver reflector sunglass: subtle power differential. Guards have these
accessories, which mark their power (ie. keys, billy clubs)
Role Playing from Stereotypes?
Zimbardo is suggesting that being a prisoner guard is obviously not an easy job, but
what he is saying is that those who become guards very often don’t get adequate
training for a very difficult job. They usually have to do it “on the fly” and a lot of them
are taking images from the media . Zimbardo questions, “Is this really the way we want
them to run a prison?”
Introduces notion of “symbiotic relationship” between the two roles of guard and
prisoner, in which both are completely intertwined with each other.
By “righteously,” Zimbardo means that it seems righteous or natural perhaps, because
there’s nobody to contradict it. The guards are not going to contradict each other, and
the prisoners are in no position to speak back to t he guards, to rebel. Because there is
no challenge to the guards’ authority , that there are “righteous”. And that it is clear
that these prisoners are naturally subordinate. Suggesting that if no one is challenging
the guards, then they can just act if thi s is the way it is supposed to be and always have
Important moment: the guard is saying that the prisoner scared him. You have the sense
that the guards are, even though they have authority, are also quite terrified of the
prisoners. The other thing that will come up later is that those who are in authority are
also paranoid, constantly worried about where the next rebellion will come from, where
the next “outbreak” trouble will come from. Even though they have all the power, they
are scared and paranoid.
“I have to watch out for them in case they try something.” paranoia and fear
“They didn’t see it as an experiment.” one of the central problems for this experiment,
at some point, everybody starts to believe and become convinced that the situation
they are in is real. Idea of “divide and conquer;” if you get the prisoners not to trust each other then they
cannot act in unison, and that way they are completely under their control. You can’t
“Arbitrary power;” one of the things that Zimabrdo will come back to a couple of time s
is the notion of capriciousness. It means that there is no hard and fast rule. The arbitrary
enforcement of the contradictory rules, that in other