"Very well-researched and delivered in an engaging, breezy, wink-wink tone similar to that of Mark Leyner and Billy Goldberg's Why Do Men Have Nipples?, this will likely be enjoyed equally by science buffs and casual aficionados of the curious. One of the finest science/history bathroom books of all time."
-Kirkus Reviews

Web Hoax Museum

#7: The Stanford Prison Experiment
imagePhilip Zimbardo was curious about why prisons are such violent places. Is it because of the character of their inhabitants, or is it due to the corrosive effect of the power structure of the prisons themselves?

To find out, Zimbardo created a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology department. He recruited clean-cut young men as volunteers — none had criminal records and all rated "normal" on psychological tests — and he randomly assigned half of them to play the role of prisoners and the other half to play guards. His plan was that he would step back for two weeks and observe how these model citizens interacted with each other in their new roles.

What happened next has become the stuff of legend.

Social conditions in the mock prison deteriorated with stunning rapidity. On the first night the prisoners staged a revolt, and the guards, feeling threatened by the insubordination of the prisoners, cracked down hard. They began devising creative ways to discipline the prisoners, using methods such as random strip-searches, curtailed bathroom privileges, verbal abuse, sleep deprivation, and the withholding of food.

Under this pressure, prisoners began to crack. The first one left after only thirty-six hours, screaming that he felt like he was "burning up inside." Within six days, four more prisoners had followed his lead, one of whom had broken out in a full-body stress-related rash. It was clear that for everyone involved the new roles had quickly become more than just a game.

Even Zimbardo himself felt seduced by the corrosive psychology of the situation. He began entertaining paranoid fears that his prisoners were planning a break-out, and he tried to contact the real police for help. Luckily, at this point Zimbardo realized things had gone too far. Only six days had passed, but already the happy college kids who had begun the experiment had transformed into sullen prisoners and sadistic guards.

Zimbardo called a meeting the next morning and told everyone they could go home. The remaining prisoners were relieved, but tellingly, the guards were upset. They had been quite enjoying their new-found power and had no desire to give it up.

Listed in chronological order. Newest comments at the end.
Studied this in sociology. Heard that Zimbardo was in fact wrapped up in his role that the grad student assisting him convinced him to stop (he was in a relationship with her).

I believe he actually testified in support of the military personnel who were at Abu Ghraib (remember the prison scandal in Iraq?) on the same basis that their power influence their actions as in the Stanford Experiment.
Posted by t$  on  Wed Aug 29, 2007  at  10:25 PM
I Remember this from a psych class. I later became a corrections officer. The thing is, sure the power is there, but you get used to it. You also have to know limits and use empathy. How would I feel in this situation? How would I like to be treated? It's also easier with experience and age. 20 year old kids, just given power won't handle it very well, thats kind of a no brain-er! Most of the time a bunch of kids aren't given this power, without some older more mature officers there to mentor or teach them. I am not sure what the point of this experiment actually was. I mean sure power corrupts, but for the most part corrections, police, etc... are not power hungry, corrupt or whatever. anyway thats my two cents
Posted by Shon  on  Thu Aug 30, 2007  at  10:27 AM
I just finished a movie that I got from Netflix. It was called "The Experiment" and it was basically what was described here except they kept the experiment going. It went very badly.

It is in German so I had to read the subtitles the whole time. The movie was just awesome though.
Posted by Darren  on  Thu Aug 30, 2007  at  09:13 PM
I've seen the German movie too, great one. Still it's scarry when you think how people can act in certain situations.
Posted by Ana  on  Fri Aug 31, 2007  at  04:47 AM
Ummmm! have you heard of stockholm syndrome
Posted by together  on  Sat Sep 01, 2007  at  03:20 AM

I've been on more than one forum where users are "rewarded" by being made into moderators. They quickly start bossing users around for no reason, and they gang together against users who object.

But as others said, there seem to be certain things which cause the problem:

1) It happens with very immature people, with nobody over thirty.

2) There are no experienced moderators to put a stop to abuses.

3) There is no mechanism whereby offensive moderators can be ejected from the forum if several users complain.

4) Conversations (and decisions) of the moderators are done in private, leading to "secret back-room trials" and such.

In all, these forums become like "The Soup Nazi" from that Seinfield episode... except with a large number of Soup Nazis.

I'd always told myself before that some people should never be given power over others. But today I see that the story goes further. Only a saint can safely be given such power. The rest of us require checks and balances. If the "prisoners" could vote to have abusive guards punished or even fired, the system would have behaved quite differently.
Posted by Bill Beaty  on  Mon Sep 03, 2007  at  05:22 PM
The experiment sounds a little like George Orwell's Animal Farm. The power goes to the Pigs heads.
Posted by Harley  on  Thu Sep 20, 2007  at  07:27 PM
That's what I said
Posted by Harley  on  Thu Sep 20, 2007  at  07:29 PM
Years ago, I was living near to where part of the film, "Women In Love" was being shot. I went to the location to see a friend who was an extra. I arrived there at a break in filming about lunchtime. My friend pointed out the soldiers, who were also extras.

She said that they had been chosen to be officers or "other ranks" merely upon the basis of what size uniform they had available.

The officers were standing around in a loose circle, clutching small glasses of beer and making polite conversation. The "other ranks" were lying on the grass, drinking directly from bottles and playing poker.
Posted by Gary M  on  Wed Sep 26, 2007  at  02:28 PM
I interviewed for an experiment at Stanford, but I did not have the 24x7x2-weeks that they wanted. Later found out about the experiment and the fact the "inmate" subjects were all in counciling for weeks afterward. This is about the same time that the history teacher in Palo Alto High did "The Wave" experiment. His students made the comment that Hitler could not again arise to power. Two weeks later they were there! Interesting reading.
Posted by Glen  on  Wed Nov 14, 2007  at  07:41 PM
What that comment on stockholm syndrome have to do with this experiment. Do you even know what your talking about. Stockholm is when a hostage starts identifying with the hostage taker and in some cases will actually defend the people threatening their lives.
Posted by olstar  on  Mon Nov 19, 2007  at  12:20 PM
wow this is wrong, ha!!!!!!!!!! f@*% sake
Posted by m8  on  Mon Jan 14, 2008  at  08:51 AM
:ahhh: i think i have seen a willy, haha
Posted by ben dover  on  Mon Jan 14, 2008  at  08:55 AM
"...... 20 year old kids, just given power won't handle it very well, thats kind of a no brain-er!.... " Posted by Shon in Iroquois Co. on Thu Aug 30, 2007 at 08:27 AM

How on Earth can someone calls a 2O year person a kid? I'm no longer 20 years old, but I can remember I was fully mature by that time, and so do many others.
How old are you? 30, 40 and when you will be 50 you will call the 30 year old kids?
Posted by aspen.lil  on  Wed Jan 23, 2008  at  11:23 AM
i got some 2 cents. Yes i understand they were 20 and this was ment to be somewhat of a extreme study. But this there are plenty of examples that prove this study in life. For example the abu ghraib, attica and the countless storys of rape in prison. Not just by other guys in prison, there are a fair amount about guards but they are never taken seriosly. I'm not critisising the guards, they are in shitty situations that make them do bad things like holocaust guards. But I'm sorry to try and say because there 20 is the entire reason is just stupid. This article doesn't even catch half the drama that is the actual experiment. These "prisoners" disociated from there real self. They literaly forgot it was all a experiment. Look the fact is HUMAN NATURE IS THE SAME AT ALL AGES! At the age of 20 you are grown up enough to have a good sense of moral bounds. If they were 30 or even 40 the treatment wouldn't have changed. Some of this that happend was like a much more severe form of bootcamp, the basic principles that is. The drill sergents who were once someone who would never yell end up purposfully humiliating us. They essentialy went through the same transition but like i said in a less extreme way. What this experiment was really saying is what happens when people are given so much power over people, how do they react? Fact is this does show a lot about our prison system, there are a couple things that are more extreme but there are other things like the "hole" in which they were only allowed to but somebody in there for a hour but in real life they can throw someone in there for a week. What I found amazing is how they turned prisoners against eachother by putting some in the privelaged cell so that everyone thought that they snitched because that is something they also do all the time in real prisons. Sorry guys but wake up, them being 20 doesn't automaticaly create what happend. It helps explain why it was a little more drastic, but the esential data remains the same.
Posted by psych student  on  Thu May 01, 2008  at  06:46 PM
How is this a hoax?
Posted by Intelitary Milligence  on  Thu Feb 19, 2009  at  11:01 AM
This sort of stuff also happened in Navy boot camp when I was there. Ordinary non-criminal young men feeling like prisoners and being dominated by the same type of young men who were chosen to be "leaders" among the recruits. Some of the "leaders" who were in charge when the company commander wasn't around became a little sadistic. It still bothers me 46 years later when I remember. . .
Posted by Phil  on  Wed Feb 25, 2009  at  09:40 AM
what da f*** and watched both versions of the film .....WELL THIS JUST shows how SICK HUMAN beings really are...... that includes PHIL ZAMBARDO.. i mean did the people really need to conduct this experiment to know a human being could or would react like this?? The way you talk on your site is like it was all ok nothing to worry about and it was normal. Rubbish, this is entertainment....in a film yeah but based on a true story..well..... fascinating. I may not be shocked anymore by the way the human race behaves but I surely am still fascinated and disgusted. Ok I should get over it but Im entitled to voice my opinion and this is it I BELIEVE ITS WRONG, NO ONE SHOULD BE PUT TO THE TEST .......ESPECIALLY WHEN WE KNOW WHAT THE ANSWER IS!!! I MEAN WHY RISK IT???? WHAT WOULD YOU DO ...AND THERE IS YOUR ANSWER!!! Im 24 years of age and I dont know much and I have one hell of alot to learn one thing I have learned is that politicians and professors (MAJORITY of them) should be lined up and SHOT and not a day goes by where they prove me wrong...but hey Im just another guinea pig getting PI**e* of over stuff thats going on in this world BUT NONE OF US CAN REALLY DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT...
Posted by Samantha B  on  Fri Nov 12, 2010  at  06:53 PM
How much different was this experience than a fraterity rush week?
Posted by kitty lane  on  Fri Dec 03, 2010  at  06:43 PM

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