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Psychological effects of Zimbardo Prison Experiment

Description of the study. The prison experiment carried out was a simulation study of the psychological imprisonment conducted at Stanford University. In the summer of 1971, Dr. Zimbardo set out to find the answers to the following posed questions. “What happens when you put good people in an evil place?” “Does humanity win over evil or does evil triumph?” The planned two-week experiment, hand to be brought to a halt in barely six days, because of how the students behaved of who participated. In a matter of a couple of days, the guards became sadistic and the prisoners became very stressed. This shocking study about social psychology reveals the hidden truth about the nature of human nature. Volunteers for this experiment were chosen via a newspaper, asking for people to take part in a study of the psychological effects of prison life. The experiment was aimed at finding out what the psychological effects were of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. Setting up a simulated prison and noting the behavior of that inside created this.

Finally, 24 college students were chosen from over 70 applicants. They were from the Stanford area and wanted to earn $15 per day by participating in a study. The 24 white, males were all normal, healthy middle-class students. They were put into 2 groups by flipping a coin, and then randomly decided one group would be the guards and the other group would be prisoners. Zimbardo and other researchers called upon the help of others to simulate a prison environment close to a real one. Their prison was constructed in the basement of the psychology department at Stanford. Prison cells were created by taking off doors and replacing them with steel bars and cell numbers. “The Hole” was created to become solitary confinement. This was dark and very cramped. The prisoners were blindfolded and in shock when brought into “Stanford County Jail”. They were greeted by a warden who explained the seriousness of their offense.

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Each prisoner was searched and stripped. They were once again kept blindfolded at all times and deloused with spray in supposedly believing that he may have germs or lice. Many of the procedures carried out by the prison guards as a form of humiliation were very similar to methods undertaken in real-life prisons, many in the past and some from prisons of today. The prisoners were issued with a uniform. This consisted of a smock or dress with no underclothes. On this, was the prisoner’s ID number. They also wore a heavy chain bolted around the right ankle. Footwear was rubber sandals and they also covered their hair with a stocking cap made from nylon clothing. The prisoners were issued with ID numbers and could only refer to one another with these as this makes all prisoners anonymous. The stocking cap on prisoners’ heads is a way of minimizing individuality. Prisoners could not, therefore, express themselves through hairstyle or length. The guards were given no specific training on how to be guards.

Instead, they made their own sets of rules and these were carried out under supervision. The guards were also warned of the serious dangers involved in what they were about to carry out. The prisoners also expected some harassment, just like real prisoners. They wouldn’t have privacy and some of their civil rights violated while they were in prison. This was all part of their informed consent agreement which they had volunteered to. All the guards dressed identically. They wore identical uniforms and carried a whistle and club. They also wore sunglasses. This idea was used to prevent anyone from seeing their eyes or reading their emotions. This helped to promote anonymity. The cells in which the prisoners slept were very small and there was hardly any room to do much else.

The guards soon thought they needed to show authority over the prisoners. This was done by waking the prisoners in the early hours of the morning. Counts took place so that the prisoners could familiarize themselves with their ID numbers. In the beginning, the prisoners did not take these counts seriously. This, therefore, led to the guards feeling they did not have enough authority over the prisoners. Resulting in series of direct confrontations between the guards at the prisoners. Many forms of punishment were imposed onto the guards but push-ups were a common form. The guards adopted this idea, which was used in Nazi concentration camps. The guards would step on the prisoner’s back and make them do push-ups. Sometimes, the guards would use other prisoners to step on their fellow inmates’ backs.

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On the second day of the study, the prisoners broke out into a rebellion. They removed their stocking caps, ripped off their numbers, and barricaded themselves inside the cells by putting their beds against the door. The guards were not at all happy with this sudden outburst that they reacted in extreme measures. All guards were called in to deal with the matter. They treated force with force. They got a fire extinguisher and shot skin chilling carbon dioxide at the prisoners in order to move them away from the doors. The guards now went a step further and began to strip all the prisoners naked. They then placed the ringleaders of the rebellion into solitary confinement and took all the beds out of the cells. They generally harassed and intimidated the prisoners. The guards now decided to use psychological tactics instead of physical ones.

They designed a privileged cell where the prisoners who stayed in that cell received all their privileges back again. They got their beds, uniforms back. They were also allowed to wash and brush their teeth. This was brought about to break prisoner solidarity. After about half a day, the prisoners were now swapped around so that the “bad” prisoners were placed into the privileged cell while the others were put into solitary confinement. Due to the prisoners’ rebellion, the guards no longer felt that this was an experiment or a simulation. Instead, they thought the prisoners were troublemakers and that they were out to get them. They, therefore, stepped up their aggression, surveillance, and control. The guards totally took away all the rights of the prisoners. They were no longer allowed to urinate or defecate in the toilets but instead had to use buckets. These were then placed in the prison cells and could not be cleaned leading to the whole prison smelling of urine and feces. This degraded the environment further.

One of the prisoners, #8612 soon began to suffer from emotional disturbance, disorganized thinking, and uncontrollable crying and rage. He asked to be let out from the experiment, but researchers had become so into their role of prison authorities, that they thought the prisoner was conning them. When the next prison count came about, Prisoner #8612 began to act so “crazy” and shouted, “You can’t leave. You can’t quit”. This is when the researchers finally realized they had to release him. The experiment was soon taken out of hand when Zimbardo soon became fully into his role of a prison superintendent. He soon lost the fact that it was only an experiment and not real life. Due to the prison escape turning out to be just a rumor. This made the guards considerably more aggressive. They now made prisoners clean the toilets out with their bare hands as shown below.

The prisoners were also made to do push-ups more often. Counts were also increased to several hours each. A priest was called in and interviewed each prisoner individually. Half of the prisoners introduced themselves by their ID number. This was the seriousness of the prison effect. The prisoners now also believed the only way they could leave the prison was by hiring a lawyer. There was a parole meeting being held, where all the prisoners who thought they had grounds for parole were lined up and chained together and brought before the panel, individually. Prisoners were asked if they would forfeit the money if they were to be paroled. Most of the prisoners answered yes, even though they could have obtained the same result by simply asking to quit. They felt that they had to obey. They felt that they had no other choice. Their sense of reality had shifted and they no longer perceived imprisonment as an experiment.

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By the fifth day, guards began to do their job more easily. The researchers soon began to learn that there were three types of guards. The first type was the tough but fair guards. They were the ones who followed the prison rules. The second type was the “good guards”. They did the prisoners little favors and never punished them. The third type of guards was sadistic and enjoyed the power that they had over the prisoners. Prisoners now had no power at all. They showed their frustration in different ways. Some prisoners broke down emotionally, in order to escape the situation. Another prisoner developed a psychosomatic rash over his whole body when he realized that his parole request had been turned down. The rest of the prisoners coped by becoming good prisoners, doing everything that the prison guards told them to do.

Towards the end of the study, prisoners disintegrated, both as a group and as individuals. Group unity no longer existed. Instead, it was just a bunch of isolated teens hanging on. The guards had won total control of the prison, and they commanded the blind obedience of each prisoner. The prison had become internalized that prisoners believed that they could not escape. A particular prisoner #416 went to the extent of going on a hunger strike. After many unsuccessful attempts, the guards threw him into solitary confinement. He was kept here for three hours. On the fifth night, Zimbardo realized that the experiment had to be ended. He had created an overwhelmingly powerful situation. Prisoners were withdrawing and behaving in pathological ways. Guards had now become so sadistic.

The study was ended prematurely due to the researchers learning through videotapes that the guards were abusing the prisoners more pornographically. The study was also ended by a Ph.D., Christina Maslach. After seeing the prisoners being marched on toilet runs, bags over their heads, and legs chained together. By this time everyone had realized that the study should be ended. Therefore after six days, the two-week planned prison simulation was called off. Discussion of the ethics of Zimbardo’s study. Zimbardo still has mixed emotions about the ethics of his experiment. His experiment has been criticized by some social scientists for its treatment of human research subjects. When Zimbardo was asked about the ethics of his experiment, he said that “the ethical point is legitimate insofar as who are you, as an experimenter, to give a person that kind of information about oneself. But my feeling is that that’s the most valuable kind of information that you can have and that certainly a society needs it.”

He told Stanford Report that he believes the pendulum now has swung too far toward protecting research subjects at the expense of new knowledge that could help society. “Our study went through the human subjects committee then because they didn’t know in advance, nor did we, that anything would happen. Now [review committees] assume everybody is so fragile, that if you propose to tell a research subject he failed a test, it will damage his self-esteem forever. So most research now is paper and pencil tests. We ask people things like ‘Imagine you were a guard, how would you behave?’ ” He told the Toronto symposium audience last summer that the prison experiment was both ethical and unethical. It was ethical, he said, because “it followed the guidelines of the Stanford human subjects ethics committee that approved it. There was no deception; all subjects were told in advance that if prisoners, many of their usual rights would be suspended and they would have an only minimally adequate diet and health care during the study,” which was planned to last two weeks.

It was also ethical for him to continue, he said, in that more than 50 people came to look at the study in progress and did not register any objections before Maslach registered hers. Among those who did not intervene were parents and friends of the students who came to see them on the prison’s visiting nights, a Catholic priest, a public defender, and “professional psychologists, graduate students and staff of the psychology department who watched on-line videos of part of the study unfold or took part in parole board hearings or spoke to [the study subjects] and looked at them.” But it was unethical, he said, “because people suffered and others were allowed to inflict pain and humiliation on their fellows over an extended period of time.” “And yes, although we ended the study a week earlier than planned, we did not end it soon enough.”

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The carrying out of this experiment broke the ethical guidelines outlined by the BPS. The main guidelines broken were the following: Deception, Consent, Withdrawal from the experiment, and Protection of participants. After having considered both sides of the argument, I feel that the psychologists involved in the experiment should not be barred from practicing as psychologists. They provided an interesting insight into what can happen to humans when faced up against a situation where they end up acting inhumanely. Discussion on the implications for Prisons today. The experiment has not had many implications for real prisons in this day in age. In fact, prisons have been radically transformed in the United States in the last 25 years to make them less humane, Haney told the Toronto symposium audience. Voters have increasingly voted for politicians who take a tough public stance in favor of prisons as places for punishment, rather than for reforming social deviants.

Long, determinate sentences are part of the new trend in policy, he said, as are an increasing number of prisons, like California’s Pelican Bay, that put prisoners in long-term isolation. “Psychology and other social science disciplines have been moved out of any kind of meaningful participation in debates over criminal justice policy,” he said, urging the academics in his audience to “figure out ways in which we can re-involve ourselves in this debate.” In Zimbardo’s view, prisons are “failed social-political experiments” that continue to bring out the worst in relations between people “because the public is indifferent to what takes place in secret there, and politicians use them, fill them up as much as they can, to demonstrate only that they are tough on crime.

They are as bad for the guards as the prisoners in terms of their destructive impact on self-esteem, sense of justice and human compassion.” Haney listed a number of lessons from the study that he said are largely ignored in American prisons as well as in other institutions of power today. The study demonstrated, for example, that “good people are not enough” to prevent abusive excess, he said. “Individual differences matter very little in the face of an extreme situation. Institutional settings develop a life of their own independent of the wishes and intentions and purposes of those who run them.”

Advantages and limitations of different sources of information. In order to plan this into a successful project, I used various different sources of information. The first source of information I used was Internet sites, where I found some were more helpful and useful than others. The following screenshot shows how I found sites relating to the project. I used other sources of information too, such as the psychology intranet site, which had a useful section on Social Psychology, Ethics. This also proved to be useful, as did many textbooks that I also referred to for information. These were the current textbook, which we are using for our course, “Introducing Psychological Research” by Banyard and Grayson. I also used other textbooks but they were not as useful as the one I am using for my course currently.


  • Author URL or details of source Evaluation
  • Banyard and Grayson Introducing Psychological Research A good textbook. Useful points
  • Nicky Hayes Foundations of Psychology A good textbook but not detailed enough
  • Michael Eysenck Psychology- Students Handbook Ok textbook. Could have included pictures
  • Excellent site. Colored pictures and detailed explanation of the experiment
  • Brief explanation of the experiment, not as good as the above
  • Good website for ethics question[/i:a80ef00e5a]

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Psychological effects of Zimbardo Prison Experiment. (2021, Mar 18). Retrieved October 4, 2022, from