What Can We Learn from the Stanford Prison Experiment?

1 January 2017

There is no doubt that the study conducted by Dr Philip Zimbardo in 1971 at Stanford University was extremely valuable to not only the Psychology profession, but also to all social science fields. He tested and selected participates to recreate a prison environment separating one group into two, guards and prisoners, and the results were truly ground breaking. A lot of significant information was gathered and the results help us understand psychological processes and the changes in individuals submitted to an authoritarian system.

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College students were placed in a situation that caused a radical alteration to their behavioural patterns. For some of them it only took two days to reach a state of emotional breakdown and for other the effects had long term consequences. It was probably an exciting scenario for the psychologists involved in the study. There were a lot of dramatic changes in attitudes and some surprising reactions from the subjects selected as they were watched, recorded and analysed.

According to the leaders of the project no homosexual or racist practice would be tolerated and no physical punishment would be allowed to take place for ethical reasons. It was certainly ethical to forbid such actions. But how ethical were they? As said before, they were watching closely day in and day out but still they allowed severe psychological punishment to take place. Cruel actions were carried out by the ones that had the role of guards towards the ones acting as prisoners.

And the fact that the organizers would give the “guards” a certain freedom to decide how to handle the “prisoners” suggested that they would be tolerant of their actions, however they decided to handle the persons under their “guard”. Some participants were depressed and disturbed for being there and others would stay much longer than they were supposed to. It shows us the extreme impact that this unbalanced system had on both groups. The absolute lack of or the total ownership of power transformed the subject’s behaviours to the point that made them demonstrate loss of human qualities.

The participants with the role of prisoners became completely obedient to the ones acting as guards. They had no freedom of choice and they were constantly humiliated. The guards became cold and mean. Both groups had no other type of human interaction and by having reflective sunglasses as part of the guards’ uniforms not even eye contact was possible, dividing the two groups even further. Even though the experiment didn’t recreate with absolute accuracy what exactly happens in a real prison, Dr Zimbardo had to cease it. He couldn’t do as he had originally planned and had to finish the study after only six days.

It might seem like a short period of time, but it was long enough to have a strong effect on the participants’ stability. If the Stanford Prison Experiment was so harmful to the participants what would be the consequences of a real detention environment? Can the rehabilitation system nowadays be trusted to sufficiently recover individuals who after their sentence will go back into normal society? The dehumanization and deindividuation demonstrated in this experiment, and which still takes place in prisons today, does not contribute on the recovery of those individuals.

On a BBC News article “The world’s biggest prison system” a former Pennsylvania prison guard expresses his thoughts: “The Christian in me says its wrong, but the correction officer in me says I love to make a grown man to piss himself” The focus on punishment still is strongly incorporated in the system making prison life a very harmful and damaging experience for those who end up behind bars. If the centre of attention were to be the recovery and recuperation of criminal offenders, time spent in prison could be a time of personal development, which could in turn lead to a life contributing to society rather than taking from society.

A place that congregates people from different walks of life and backgrounds with a lot of time to kill it is a place of potential. “An empty mind is a devil’s workshop”. Giving the opportunity of a productive prison life could maybe change some people’s life and get people out of there with positive results. But such a great adjustment to a system that has its roots on a negative approach wouldn’t be easy. So it is not only governments that need to take action.

Other institutions of society and even communities could probably gain from investing in lives that will enter back into society and shouldn’t go back to crime. Another fact we cannot deny we learn from the Stanford Prison Experiment is about the fragility of the human mind. It is important to seek internal balance of emotions, values and feelings to achieve a healthy mental life but when an individual is exposed to an environment of extreme oppression it can definitely shake ones stability. Mental abuse should be considered as bad as physical because it destroys people’s self esteem.

It removes the sense of being able to accomplish and achieve goals and dreams. Maybe because the wounds of the soul cannot be seen it is more difficult to convince people that serious damage can occur in a person’s life. In summary the Stanford Prison Experiment is one of the most important studies in Psychological history. A number of valuable lessons about the human mind were learned, some expected and some unexpected but all of which allow us to gain a greater understanding of the mind’s fragility and the dangers to it of negative actions.

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