Zimbardo – A Study of Prisoners and Guards in a Simulated Prison

Haney, C., Banks, C. and Zimbardo, P.

People tend to have a stereotypical view of prison. They tend to believe that prisoners are bad people and that’s what makes prisons bad; also that prison makes people bad and not some natural characteristic. Focused around disposition versus situation.

To investigate whether the behavior of non-prisoners in a simulated prison environment is more affected by their disposition than the situation they are in.

As well as being a simulation, the study involved detailed observation of the behavior of prisoners and guards; this provided essential qualitative data.

22 participants chosen from a pool of 75 who answered a newspaper advertisement asking for male volunteers, initially 24 but ; paid $15 per day; each completed extensive questionnaires about family background, physical and mental health history, prior experiences and attitudes with psychopathology; all white, one Asian, male Stanford students that were strangers to each other.

All participants were unexpectedly ‘arrested’ at their homes and police officer charges them with burglary or armed robbery, reads them their rights, handcuffs them, and takes them to the police station, where they are finger printed and placed in a cell. All were blindfolded and driven by one of the experimenters and a guard to the mock prison. Each prisoner was stripped, sprayed with deodorant, and made to stand alone naked for some time in the cell yard. They were given uniforms and had their mugshots taken, placed in the cell and told to remain silent.

Both guards and prisoners showed a marked tendency towards increased negative emotions, and their overall outlook became more and more negative. Self- reporting evaluations of both groups also became more disapproving.

The situation people find themselves in has a stronger effect on behavior than individual factors. In a novel situation, people adapt to what to what they should do in that situation rather than acting on internal factors.

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