The Stanford Prison Experiment 

By Jacqui McLean

The Stanford prison experiment is arguably the most controversial and unethical experiment to date. The experiment intended to study the effects of prison on one’s mind from both the prisoner’s and guard’s standpoint. 24 male volunteers were randomly assigned to either the prisoner or the guard role. The men were evaluated and deemed psychologically fit to participate in the experiment; however, that assessment most definitely changed by the end of the experiment. 

The experiment was set up to mimic an actual prison as closely as possible. The Stanford psychology department was turned into a prison and prison yard. As for the setting, they called upon the assistance of former prisoners and experts to best mimic the atmosphere and treatment in prison. 

To begin the experiment, the “prisoners” were arrested and booked into jail. They experienced the exact treatment as actual prisoners including strip searches and humiliation. The prisoners wore shackles on their ankles, prison smocks, and ID numbers. On the other side of things, the guards were given no formal treatment except to keep order in any way which they seemed fit. The guards repeatedly asserted their authority by awaking the prisoners with whistles, demanding push-ups as punishment and harassing them. The prisoners, upset by these actions, rebelled against the guards. The guards responded by spraying the prisoners with fire extinguishers. This began a power struggle between the guards and prisoners. The guards stripped the prisoners naked and were humiliated until they were deemed “good.” Soon the experiment became less of a replication but rather an actual battle between the prisoners and guards for control and liberty. 

After only a few days, the prisoners allegedly planned to escape. The experiment supervision then made a plan to ensure the escape could not take place. He then began to realize the role he was taking on in the prison as opposed to just the experiment. 

Prisoner #819 was the first to break. He had a complete psychological breakdown. He completely forgot that he was part of an experiment and truly believed that he was a prisoner with very little rights and privileges. It took less than a week. Believing prisoner #819 was in danger, the lead psychologist released him and explained the experiment. The remaining prisoners dealt with their experiences in different ways. Some had emotional breakdowns, others tried to be good to the guards to get better treatment. 

At six days, over a week short of the experiment timeline, the head psychologist ended the experiment. The effects of the experiment were starting to affect both the prisoners and guards. They began to take on the roles that they were only supposed to be simulating. The prisoners truly believed they were stuck in prison and the guards were taking on more aggressive personalities. As well, parents and other researchers began to object to the experiment once they realized the real implications it had on the individuals participating.  

While this experiment was very telling of how people truly conform to their roles and how learned helplessness comes about, the experiment itself was incredibly harmful to the participants. This experiment truly tested the boundaries of scientific ethics.