This was a landmark study (1971) that addressed the issues of captivity (prison setting) and the impact of social roles on behavior. Zimbardo, a Stanford researcher took a group of 24 young men and randomly assigned them to one of two groups, either the prisoners or guards. A mock jail was constructed in the basement of a Stanford building. Zimbardo was the superintendent. Guards were given wooden batons, mirrored sunglasses and military uniforms. Prisoners wore smocks (did not fit correctly and underwear were not allowed). Prisoners were referred to as a number, not name (sewn on prison uniform). They also had to wear tight pantyhose on their head to simulate a shaven head. A chain around the ankle was required to remind each prisoner of his imprisonment and oppression. Almost immediately, problems occurred. For example, guards set up a good cell and bad cell in hopes of pitting the prisoners against one another (groups would believe an informant was present). Guards did many acts of tormenting the prisoners. Physical punishment included long acts of a “forced exercise” regime. The prison became unsanitary and inhospitable. The bathroom was used as a privilege. Prisoners also cleaned the bathroom by hand. Prisoners in the “Bad Cell” were forced to sleep on concrete floors without clothes. Food was used as reinforcement and prisoners were forced into nudity and homosexual acts of humiliation. As the experiment continued, guards became more sadistic, especially at night when the cameras were off. Many of the guard gained truly sadistic characteristics and became upset when the experiment was discontinued. Of course, when the impact of this research was assessed, Zimbardo and his colleagues stopped the experiment.
Prisoners reacted in 3 ways to this situation: a) resisting the guards and situation, b) becoming model prisoners, or, lastly, c) breaking down and crying etc., In fact, one prisoner had a psychomatic rash when he determined that his parole had been turned down. It was amazing what both the prisoners and guards did, that is their roles when placed in this environment. One prisoner went on a hunger strike because of the guards sadistic techniques. He then was placed in a small closet for 3 hours. Here he was forced to hold onto the sausage that he did not want to eat. The remaining prisoners saw him as a trouble maker. The guards said they could give up their blankets or the prisoner (on hunger strike) would remain in solitary confinement overnight. The prisoners kept their blankets. Zimbardo did return the prisoner to his cell early.
In conclusion, the experiment illuminated the impressionability and obedience of individuals when a legitimizing ideology is present (e.g., social world of a prison) and institutional support. Here, cognitive dissonance theory and the power of authority were apparent based on the behaviors of both the prisoners and guards. Even Zimbardo became consumed in the experiment. For example, he and the guards attempted to move the experiment to an actual jail when they were notified that an escape plan was discovered. The local police said no. This experiment showed the power of the experiment and how individuals can be harmed (severely) by research. Human subject protection is imperative.