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The Dark Side of Power

The Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted from August 15th to August 20th, 1971, was a role-playing experiment by Stanford University. The purpose of the experiment was to study and examine the effects of different scenarios on the behaviour of the participants. It was led by a Stanford Psychology professor, Philip Zimbardo.

The purpose of the experiment was to find out whether the brutality occurring inside prisons in America was due to the cruel personalities of the guards themselves or due to the prison environment. For this purpose, 24 men were recruited after a quick profile study. Out of them, 12 were randomly chosen as guards and 12 as prisoners. The selected guards were given a set of rules to abide by. They were also given batons and uniforms to mimic that of real prison guards. Mirrored sunglasses to avoid eye contact was also supplied.

On August 15th, the students were “arrested” from their homes by Dr. Zimbardo’s team, assisted by the local police department. The police car picked up the “prisoners” for the violations of armed robbery and burglary. They were then blindfolded and led to a mock prison cell constructed in the psychology department.

When the prisoners arrived at “Stanford County Jail,” they were strip-searched, deloused with a spray, and had all their belongings and clothes taken away. They were given ill-fitting smocks and stocking caps, which they wore at all times, as well as a chain around one ankle. In addition to this, each prisoner had to be called only by their ID number.

Guards were instructed to do whatever they thought was necessary to maintain law and order. No physical violence was permitted. Zimbardo observed the behaviour of the prisoners and guards and also acted as the superintendent.

On the first day, the prisoners were awakened at 2:30 AM. Initially, the prisoners did not settle into their roles and tried to assert their independence; the guards were unsure how to assert authority over the prisoners.

As time went on, the rebellions grew. However, this time the guards found different methods to discipline the prisoners. They stripped the prisoners naked and forced the ringleaders of the prisoner rebellion into solitary confinement. They also began to harass and intimidate the prisoners. To restrict further acts of disobedience, the guards separated and rewarded prisoners. Witnessing this, the inmates started to distance themselves from one another. Every aspect of the prisoners' behaviour fell under the total control of the guards. Even going to the toilet became a privilege that a guard could grant or deny at his whim. It got to the point where one of the prisoners began suffering from acute emotional disturbance and uncontrollable crying. Zimbardo quickly intervened, reassured him of his actual identity, and removed the prisoner.

On day 6, the experiment ended due to Christina Maslach’s (psychologist) outrage, the parents' concerns, and the increasing brutality exhibited by guards. Zimbardo gathered the participants to let them know that the experiment was over. Zimbardo later met with all of the prisoners, the guards, and finally, everyone came together to share their experiences.

Philip concluded that the behaviour of the prison guards was only due to the situation they were in. The experiment did well to show how much a person can change when given power and no rules to follow. Some of the guards became so much more violent than they usually were. The prisoners also turned on each other to get perks. This was in sharp contrast to the initial stages, when they collaborated to get themselves out of trouble.

Most of the prisoners felt their identities being washed away and thought themselves to be only a prisoner. They only snapped out of it when reminded of their real names and families. Unfortunately, the guards were not confronted with this issue, and as a result, they became even more sadistic and cruel.

One positive outcome of this experiment is that, as a result of the findings, certain stricter rules and regulations have been implemented within prisons.

This experiment begs an important question: Is evil caused by the environment or by the personalities? This experiment set out to prove that it is our surroundings that make the man.

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