23 | Stanford Prison Experiment

What happens when you put good people in evil situations? Is it possible that humanity will trump evil or will evil ultimately win? In 1971, an experiment took place beneath a university to answer those questions. Chapter 23 of ORIGINS explores the Stanford Prison Experiment.

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What happens when you put good people in evil situations? Is it possible that humanity will trump evil or will evil ultimately win? In 1971, an experiment took place beneath a university to answer those questions. Chapter 23 of ORIGINS explores the Stanford Prison Experiment.


If you’ve ever been to Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights, you know how easy it is to fall into the role of whatever scene is being portrayed. Last year, I remember walking through The Purge. A large platform on a flatbed held a decrepit woman bleating through a megaphone, telling everyone that it time for the countdown to begin. And then, the sirens blared. Chaos slowly bubbled like boiling water before it rolls and as we stood motionless in the middle of the movie lot street, I turned to my husband and friends and said, “I think we should run.” Of course, we all knew it was fake, and that’s what makes Halloween Horror Nights so incredible. Yet it was so easy to wrap my brain around the story and find my place within it. I didn’t even have to try. In 1971, Professor Philip G. Zimbardo of Stanford University performed a similar scenario with his students, which came to be known as the Stanford Prison Experiment.

On a quiet Sunday morning in August, California police drove to various homes to arrest nine violators of armed robbery and burglary. The men were searched, handcuffed, read their rights, and thrown into police cruisers surrounded by the curious eyes of onlookers. What the friends and neighbors didn’t know was that the accused were students of Stanford University. They had agreed to live roles as prisoners for 14 days in an experiment to test the psychological effects of perceived power, demonstrated between the roles of prisoners and guards. What none of them knew was the experiment would cease after just six days due to the harrowing affects no one could’ve predicted.

Psychology Professor Philip Zimbardo played the role of the Superintendent. He waited in the underground facility beneath Stanford University that he’d transformed into a prison, complete with cells, bars, bunks, and shower facility, which is where prisoners went immediately after booking. One end of the basement hall led to “The Yard” the only place where prisoners could go outside. Opposite the cells, which were classrooms with the doors removed and replaced, stood a closet used for solitary confinement known as “The Hole.” It was a pitch dark, two-foot by two-foot room, tall enough for a prisoner to stand. Cameras were set in the hall and bugs planted in each of the rooms for video and audio recording and analysis. Prisoners were blindfolded, told of their crimes, and left in the dark upon arrival. The guards were encouraged to be cruel, unyielding, and to initiate negative psychological treatment upon their prisoners.

The experiment began.

The men lived with no clock to give any essence of time, no view of the outside world, and no idea of the dimensions in which they were kept, since even a trip to the bathroom included a blindfold. The men were stripped naked and hosed down with cleansers and anti-lice treatments, as if they were vile and inhuman, a scene reminiscent of the treatment of those caught in the web of the Holocaust. In a short time, the prisoners were made to feel dehumanized as the guards abused them verbally and encouraged weaker prisoners to abuse any cellmates who tried fighting back. I imagine it would be easy to move from having full self-esteem to wishing death would find you when you start to believe you are evil, subhuman, and worthless. This was the purpose of the Stanford Prison Experiment, after all, to categorize the emotions of those suffering beneath a corruption forced upon them after being told they’d committed heinous crimes of which they had no memory.

Cleaned and disinfected, the prisoners were given numbered suits in drab color with no undergarments. Their identities were stripped away leaving behind conformity. Heavy chains bolted to their right ankles reminded them at all times how they were not their own; they belonged to the system. Anonymous and oppressed, their heads were even “shaved” to strip them of their individuality. Professor Zimbardo went through great lengths to completely demoralize and breakdown the student prisoners, and it worked better than he’d anticipated. The prisoners became their role, absorbed into the new life they found themselves in, and grew greatly depressed; even suicidal.

On the other hand, the student guards were given no direction except to do what was necessary to keep the prisoners in line, within reason. They were dressed in identical uniforms with mirrored glasses to give them greater authority and to mask their eyes. The guards would insult and demean the prisoners to include waking them in the middle of the night with blasts of whistles and forcing pushups for infractions, which at first were met with minimal resistance. Until the second day when a rebellion awaited the morning guards. The prisoners ripped off their caps (to make them appear that their heads had been shaved) and yanked the numbers off their frocks. They cursed and insulted the guards, leaving the new shift pissed. What could they do to regain control? They guards grabbed fire extinguishers and sprayed icy CO2 until the prisoners returned to their cells. They removed the frocks and cots, leaving the prisoners naked and alone in their cells. Humilated. Cold. Trembling.

Here’s where the experiment really began to take shape. All nine guards had to be on hand to take down and manage the prisoners in the rebellion. Since it was impossible for the nine to be on hand 24-7, they needed to find a way to keep the incarcerated in line. Physical retaliation was not a possibility, so they decided to try psychological mind tricks. First, they sent the rebellion ring leaders into solitary. Next, they took the prisoners with the least involvement and gave them upgraded, special rooms all to themselves as rewards, to include return of their uniforms, cots, and bedding. They were even allowed to wash up, brush their teeth, and get special foods that they ate in front of the general population. But wait, it gets more messed up. The guards then switched the bad prisoners in the bad cells with those in the good cells, causing confusion among the men and breaking all previous ties. No one knew who they could trust anymore, leaving each man in his own prison… you get what I mean. Everyone became distrustful of everyone else, leaving the guards in charge, and three to a shift proved more than enough. And the crazy part is that this began the downward spiral of reality becoming lost in a make-believe world. The guards and prisoners had become their roles so deeply, that the fourteen-day experiment ended only four days later by Zimbardo’s forced decision.

This type of experimentation would NEVER be allowed in today’s world. Not even with consent. The Stanford Prison Experiment wasn’t alone in its quest for psychological assessment either. A few other famous cases—the ones we’ve heard about at any rate—have their place in the pages of Google too.

In 1960, the Milgram Experiment, attempted to recreate the passive aggressive behavior of the Holocaust. In a typical line experiment where there is one control who doesn’t know the answer and three people who do, Dr. Stanley Milgram became obsessed not with the answer, but rather with how far people would be willing to go to remain obedient. What he discovered was shocking. The subjects were obedient to a fault in a very short time. 65% of them administered a 450 volt shock labeled “XXX” three times before Milgram gave them the order to stop. Shockingly (no pun intended) all the subjects willingly underwent shock of more than 300 volts! And those in the craziest level, the one he expected no one would comply, the one marked mortally dangerous, involved the subject holding down the hand of the persecutor holding the shock plate while begging for mercy. Twelve of the forty in the experiment actually obeyed.

The Little Albert Experiment of 1920 paired an eleven-month-old child with a deranged scientist. The experiment was to test if common objects could become feared. The boy was presented with a white rat, which he didn’t find scary at all, until the rat was accompanied by a loud noise that scared the child so desperately, he couldn’t see the rat anymore without bursting into tears. This one is pretty messed up and truly an evil thing to do to a child (though I have to admit there’s a part of me that wants to retell this story resulting in Little Albert becoming a serial killer).

Want to get that monkey off your back? What if the monkey is the addict? The Monkey Drug Trials of 1969 hooked monkeys on cocaine, amphetamines, morphine, and alcohol under the supervision of three researchers at Michigan Medical School. Why you ask? To determine if once addicted, the monkeys would freely use or stop of their own accord once the drugs were no longer forced upon them. As you guessed, the monkeys didn’t kick the habit, some even dying from the experiment’s affects.

Back to Stanford University, in 1960, the Bobo Doll Experiment took 72 nursery-aged children and forced them to watch an adult violently abuse an inflatable toy (Bobo Doll) for ten straight minutes. Once the adults left the room, the children mirrored this behavior, verbally and physically attacking the Bobo. It’s pretty powerful stuff, and the ORIGINS of many great works of fiction like Lord of the Flies and Hunger Games, showing that aggressive behavior is both learned and innate.

While this is one of a few chapters of ORIGINS that doesn’t focus on supernatural occurrences, it could possibly be one of the scariest. Experiment upon experiment take so-called “normal” human beings and place them under an authoritative leadership based upon corruptive behavior. Time and again, the masses undergo transformation that leads to violent, power-hungry leaders in some and sheep-like, single-minded obedience to a fault in others. We will never know why some become what they are told to become even when it goes against their core beliefs. And we will deny in absolution that something like that could ever happen to us. Until the siren sounds and we are told, “The Purge has begun.”

I’m Jaimie Engle, and you’ve just discovered ORIGINS.

ORIGINS is a bi-weekly podcast that shares the story behind legends and lore, written and produced by me, award-winning author Jaimie Engle. Please rate and subscribe to ORIGINS. It’s your greatest compliment. And if you really love it, support through Patreon.com/thewriteengle. Finally, stick around for an excerpt from my award-winning novella The Dredge, that shows a sci-fi universe under the thumb of a controlling Regime.

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Support: www.patreon.com/thewriteengle | Show Notes: www.podcastorigins.com | Music by www.bensound.com | Purchase The Dredge

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