Psychology. Stanford Prison Experiment


The Sanford Prison Experiment managed to prove sharp psychological changes experienced by its participants through the rapid alter of the atmosphere and emotional pressure. The Sanford Prison Experiment, 1971, is considered to be the study and careful analysis of the psychological effects experiencing from being a prison guard or a prisoner. The study was carried at Stanford University by Psychology Professor, Phillip Zimbardo.

The research involved the participation of 24 undergraduates who had to perform their roles of being true prisoners and living in a special mock prison of the psychology building at Stanford. It is important to underline the fact that the participants of the experiment had no negative psychological issues or medical disabilities as well as crime history for the purpose of conducting effective sample in research. The study was aimed at realization of natural situations experiencing by people being directly or indirectly connected with the prison life for the purpose of analyzing their psychological changes and emotional transformations.

Main Body

The Stanford Prison Experiment in accordance with the theory of the professor, managed to demonstrate that deindividuation is the result of living in others’ presence leading to the feeling of reduced individuality. It should be mentioned that people experiencing such an atmosphere of life get the sense of decreased accountability having small responsibility for their own actions. The experiment was based on the principles and issues described in the theory of professor Zimbardo aimed at highlighting deindividuation process. The analysis of this study gives an opportunity to outline three principle components constructing the process of reduced responsibility:

  • Inputs;
  • Behavioral outcomes;
  • Internal changes.

Noel Sheehy (2004) states that inputs cover the feelings of psychological arousal and the judgment of unreality is controlled by internal changes investigated in the conducted experiment. It appeared to be realistic enough through the brutal attitude of the guards to the prisoners; it is necessary to underline the fact that that so-called ‘performance’ or ‘reality-show’ was demonstrated as in a real life as the guards harassed the prisoners, removed their beds and were swift enough in their attitude. Psychological analysis of the study disclosed that the ‘play’ sponged the experimenters to participate in their own research play. The initial stages of the experiment expressed no concern or any incidents though some time later were followed by rebellion on the part of the prisoners. (Sheehy, 2004)

The experiment mirrored the atmosphere of real imprisonment through the result of its impact. Jenifer Wynn, the author of the book ‘Inside Rikers: Stories from the World’s Largest Penal colony’, underlined the fact that true guards usually get used to the violence level being inflicted on inmates and with time passed these people become immune; very often it is difficult to explain the guards different behavior at work and home.

The researchers of the conducted experiment strived to demonstrate how people can be psychologically influenced by rapid change of the environment in order to investigate their emotional alterations. People living in the society and participating in their every day activities had to experience a true shock from chains on their legs and shaved heads. Physical punishments and rude attitude to the prisoners were factors forming their new side of human nature. (Wynn, 2001)

Psychological analysis of the study showed that the atmosphere of imprisonment resulted in acute emotional disturbance, rage, uncontrollable crying and disorganized thinking. The investigation of the prisoners’ strategies and actions and visitors’ reaction on the jail system proved the realism of the conducted experiment conditions. Professor and his team made the prisoners to cope with their changed and broken emotional state individually; some participants tried to fight in order to press their inner frustration and powerlessness, other demonstrated perfect behavior and imitated obedience as it helped them to cope with difficulties of emotional breakage.

The analysis of the study discloses the principle reasons for the experiment conducting: the conceptual and the pedagogical one. The psychologists managed to create the environment of dehumanization, deindividuation and vandalism for the purpose of investigating prisoners’ antisocial acts through the anonymous feeling and inhuman behavior towards other prisoners.

Thomas Blass underlined the reason for the experiment as the testing of social situations power over personal dispositions with the ignorance of authority surveillance imposition. (Blass, 2000) From the pedagogical point of view, the study managed to show the impact of the brief experience on further character formation generating ‘prisoners’ behavior in various life stressful situations and forming strong resistance to negative social factors.


Stanford Prison Experiment appeared to be one of the most prominent and profound studies contributing to the development of psychological sphere. The findings and conceptual analysis of the research gave an opportunity to realize the rate of emotional and psychological traumatizing of people involved into the ‘sphere of prison life’. (Banyard & Flanagan, 2005) The experiment managed to show deep psychological and emotional changes of the participants’ states leaving a print of their further world perception. The realism of the study demonstrated inadequate reaction of the true prisoners on environmental and social alterations proved by the theory of deidividuation highlighted by Zimbardo.


Banyard, Phillip, & Flanagan, Cara. Ethical Issues and guideliness in Psychology. Routledge, 2005.

Blass, Thomas. Obedience to Authority: Current Perspectives on the Milgram Paradigm. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000.

Sheehy, Noel. Thinkers in Psychology. Routledge, 2004.

Wynn, Jennifer. Inside Rikers: Stories from the World’s Largest Penal colony. St. Martins Press; 1st Edition, 2001.

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