In the discipline of social psychology, there is probably not a bigger, more influential name than Phillip Zimbardo. Zimbardo (who actually attended James Monroe High School in New York with another famous social psychologist, Stanley Milgram) became interested in the claims of abuse that had been occurring throughout America’s prisons.
Zimbardo left his mark on the psychology profession with what would become known as “The Sanford Prison Experiment,” an experiment that would gain notoriety (so say even infamy) because it illustrated the harm individuals can inflect upon one another. More importantly, Zimbardo’s experiment demonstrated that the social circumstances that an individual finds him or herself in can, in fact, mold how that person will behave.
Among other things, The Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrates the cruelty humans are capable of given the proper context.
In order to study the psychological conditions of a prison, Zimbardo had to build a makeshift prison and recruit volunteers. Out of 70 applicants, Zimbardo chose 24 college students and paid them $15 per day to take part in his experiment. Zimbardo separated the volunteers in to two groups, the prisoners and the guards. Upon entering the makeshift prison, the inmates, as described by author Adam Hart-Davis, were “. . . searched, stripped naked, and then deloused with a spray—a procedure to designed to humiliate.” Prisoners were then given a uniform, prison ID number, and were sent to a cell.
Initially, for about the first day, all was calm. But on the second day, the prisoners began to rebel against the brutal, khaki-wearing guards, who had been putting the inmates through harsh conditions and brutal humiliation. The prisoners “. . . ripped off their stocking caps and barricaded themselves inside their cells by jamming their beds against the doors.”
But that wasn’t all.
The guards reacted more harshly, even refusing to allow the prisoners to use the bathroom. From there, the situation deteriorated further. On the sixth day, Zimbardo intervened and stopped the experiment. As pointed out by Hart-Davis, Zimbardo wrote:
After observing our simulated prison for only six days, we could understand how prisons dehumanize people, turning them into objects and installing in them feelings of hopelessness. And as for guards, we realize how ordinary people could be readily transformed from the good Dr. Jekyll to the evil Mr. Hyde.
Although Zimbardo ended the experiment, its ramifications still resonate.
Zimbardo’s prison experiment clearly demonstrates how individuals can succumb to “situational abuse,” that is, people can act unjustly in unjust situations. The psychological and sociological landscape of a prison is surely and environment that breeds the “dehumanization”—to use the parlance of Zimbardo—and abuse of its inmates.
In the recent past, for example, during the early stages of the invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003, Zimbardo’s prison experiment again took center stage. A year after the Iraq invasion, as highlighted by author Christian Jarret, reports of inmate abuse by guards at Abu Ghraib prisoncame to light. “Zimbardo acted as an expert witness for the defense in the court martial of Sgt. Ivan ‘Chip’ Frederick,” writes Jarret, “where he argued that the prison environment, plus wider political and systematic circumstances, were largely to blame for the atrocities.”
The abuse at Abu Ghraib is just one, highly publicized case, however. It remains unseen how many similar incidences may occur throughout the United States and elsewhere. Moreover, it remains important to note that the perpetrators of prison abuse—the guards—in both The Stanford Prison Experiment and Abu Ghraib were arguably not evil, sadistic individuals. As pointed out by Zimbardo, many guards become victims themselves of the largely systematic and environmental influences that create the abuse circumstances.
In the case of Zimbardo’s experiment, the college students he recruited to be guards, had no prior history of criminality or inflicting abuse. This, again, highly suggests how malleable human behavior may be depending on the environment where that behavior is taking place.
Hart-Davis, A. (2015). Pavlov’s Dog: Groundbreaking experiment psychology. London: Metro Books.
Jarrett, C. (2011). 30-second psychology: The 50 most thought-provoking psychology theories, each explained in half a minute. Sydney: Murdoch Books.