Stanford Prison Experiment

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Stanford Prison Experiment

Stanford Prison Experiment

Human beings are social animals whose behaviour is shaped by their interactions and affiliations with other members of the species. Social psychology is concerned with the ways in which people influence one another. Social influences have a crucial role in the development of an individual's core attitudes, beliefs and values. Moreover, a great deal of behaviour is governed by immediate social settings (Toch, 2004, 27). It is a major principle of social psychology that people behave differently in the company of others than when they are alone. Four social-situational effects are outlined in this section — conformity, obedience, compliance and deindividuation.

This paper presents a critical view of the impacts of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment conduct in 1971 by Banks, Henry, and Zimbardo. This experiment has influenced the American prison system so much that the government was forced to implement prison reforms in America.

The prison environment exerts powerful pressures for conformity. Classic sociological descriptions of prison life emphasise the division between prisoners and guards and the formation within the prison walls of two separate societies, each demanding adherence from their members to informal social rules and expectations (Keve, 2006, 51).

The best-known empirical study of prison social dynamics is the Stanford prison experiment. This research involved the creation of a simulated prison in the basement of Stanford University. Male college student volunteers were recruited to play the parts of prisoners and guards. Zimbardo and his colleagues found that early in the experiment both groups began displaying pathological behaviours — the prisoners became servile and showed signs of psychological distress while many guards became brutal and authoritarian (Keve, 2006, 52).

The researchers explained these results by suggesting that both groups adopted the explicit and implicit social norms associated with their assigned roles. They further argued that conformity to these roles was supported by practices and conditions found in most prisons — the guards' uniform intensified their sense of power and collective identity; the inmates' uniform in contrast was humiliating and dehumanizing; the use of numbers rather than names stripped away personal identity; the dependency of inmates on guards for daily needs was emasculating and promoted helplessness (Wortley, 2005, 23).

The major impediment to any effort to ameliorate this general problem is that inmates and guards have such widely different perceptions of what is going on, and each has so little capacity to grasp the viewpoint of the other. Generally the custodians are comfortably satisfied that they are good fellows doing the best they can to be fair under trying conditions and that if any inmate is dissatisfied with the process it only means that he does not fully realize what is best for him, or he, like the other prisoners, is always trying to beat the system anyway (Keve, 2006, 53).

A rather startling experiment, pointing up this whole problem, was tried in a 1971 summer school class at Stanford University. The instructor, Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo, hired about two dozen normal, well-adjusted young men ...
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