Chapter 2

Seeing and Thinking Sociologically

Sociologists at Work



Philip Zimbardo
The Psychology of Imprisonment

In 1971 Philip Zimbardo, a professor of social psychology at Stanford University, conducted a remarkable experiment. Recent prison uprisings had piqued his interest in what it means psychologically to be a prisoner or a prison guard. Why were prisoners so disposed toward violence? Why were prison guards so brutal?

The answers seemed obvious. Prisoners are violent because of the type of people they are: antisocial criminals who have little regard for other people. Guards are brutal because only brutal people are attracted to such an occupation in the first place.

But Zimbardo suspected that the dynamics of prison life depend on more than the personalities of the individuals involved. He wondered whether the structure of the prison situation played a part in turning prisoners and guards into mean and violent people.

With the help of several colleagues, Zimbardo created a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. There he could observe volunteer subjects in the roles of prisoners and guards.

Of the 70 or so students who answered his ad for volunteers, Zimbardo chose two dozen mature, emotionally stable, intelligent young men to be part of the study. None had a criminal record. They were, as he put it, the "cream of the crop of this generation."1

Some subjects were designated as "prisoners" with a flip of a coin; the rest served as "guards."

When it was time for the experiment to begin, the prisoners were unexpectedly picked up at their homes by a city police officer in a squad car. They were searched, handcuffed, fingerprinted, blindfolded, and taken to the "prison."

There the prisoners were stripped, given a uniform and number, and placed in a cell with two other inmates. They were told the cell would be their home for the next 2 weeks.

When the guards arrived, they were informed that they had the authority to make up their own rules for maintaining law, order, and respect in the prison and were free to improvise new ones at any time during their 8-hour shifts on duty.

Although the experiment was supposed to last for 2 weeks, it had to be stopped after only 6 days. Zimbardo described the situation as follows:

What we saw was frightening. It was no longer apparent to most of the subjects (or to us) where reality ended and their roles began. The majority had indeed become prisoners or guards, no longer able to clearly differentiate between role playing and self. . . . In less than a week the experience of imprisonment undid (temporarily) a lifetime of learning; human values were suspended, self-concepts were challenged and the ugliest . . . side of human nature surfaced. We were horrified because we saw some guards treat others as if they were despicable animals, taking pleasure in cruelty, while the prisoners became . . . dehumanized robots who thought only of escape, of their own individual survival and of their mounting hatred for the guards.2

Some of the prisoners became severely depressed, confused, or hysterical and had to be released after only a few days. Just to get out of the prison, all but three of the remaining prisoners were willing to forfeit all the money they had earned for participating.

When told they had been "denied parole," however, the prisoners returned docilely to their cells. Zimbardo points out that had these individuals been thinking like the college students they were, instead of the prisoners they were playing, they simply would have quit.

Many of the guards became tyrants, arbitrarily using their power and enjoying the control they had over others. Other guards were not as brutal, but they never intervened on behalf of the prisoners and never told the other guards to "ease off."

What Zimbardo so poignantly discovered was that individual behavior is largely controlled by social forces. The prison situation itself turned nice, ordinary college students into either vicious or cowering animals.

In addition, Zimbardo's aborted study illustrated that, given the proper environmental circumstances, individuals can create the very social forces that come to shape their behavior. As the experimenter, he merely provided the physical structure of the "prison" and a few general rules. It was the subjects themselves who created the reality of their roles and therefore defined the power that the prison structure exerted over them.

1 Zimbardo, P. 1971. "The pathology of imprisonment." Society, 9, 4-8. p. 4.

2 Zimbardo, P. 1971. "The pathology of imprisonment." Society, 9, 4-8. p. 4.

David Newman and Rebecca Smith. (Created September 14, 1999). Copyright Pine Forge Press.