Stanford Prison Experiment

  1. Consider the police procedures which make arrestees feel confused, fearful, and dehumanized. Note that this policeman is wearing sunglasses just like those we had our "guards" wear and as did the head of the National Guards at Attica Prison during its bloody 1971 riot!  How did the appearance of the guards affect inmate behavior?

  1. What are the effects of living in an environment with no clocks, no view of the outside world, and minimal sensory stimulation?

  1. Consider the psychological consequences of stripping, delousing, and shaving the heads of prisoners or members of the military. What transformations take place when people go through an experience like this?

  1. At first push-ups were not a very aversive form of punishment, but they became more so as the study wore on. Why the change?

  1. How do you think you would have behaved if you were a prisoner in this situation? Would you have rejected these privileges in order to maintain prisoner solidarity?

  1. Most prisoners believed that the subjects selected to be guards were chosen because they were bigger than those who were made prisoners, but actually, there was no difference in the average height of the two groups. What do you think caused this misperception?

  1. Compare the reactions of these visitors to the reactions of civilians in encounters with the police or other authorities. How typical was their behavior?

  1. In an exploratory study such as this, one problem is defining what the "data" are -- the information we should collect. Also, what should have been done to minimize the effects of experimenter bias on the outcome of the study? What were the dangers of the principal investigator assuming the role of prison superintendent?

Types of Guards

By the fifth day, a new relationship had emerged between prisoners and guards. The guards now fell into their job more easily -- a job which at times was boring and at times was interesting.

There were three types of guards. First, there were tough but fair guards who followed prison rules. Second, there were "good guys" who did little favors for the prisoners and never punished them. And finally, about a third of the guards were hostile, arbitrary, and inventive in their forms of prisoner humiliation. These guards appeared to thoroughly enjoy the power they wielded, yet none of our preliminary personality tests were able to predict this behavior. The only link between personality and prison behavior was a finding that prisoners with a high degree of authoritarianism endured our authoritarian prison environment longer than did other prisoners.

  1. In 2003 U.S. soldiers abused Iraqi prisoners held at Abu Ghraib, 20 miles west of Baghdad. The prisoners were stripped, made to wear bags over their heads, and sexually humiliated while the guards laughed and took photographs. How is this abuse similar to or different from what took place in the Stanford Prison Experiment?

  1. In the encounter sessions, all the prisoners were happy the experiment was over, but most of the guards were upset that the study was terminated prematurely. Why do you think the guards reacted this way?

Extra Questions to Think About

  1. What police procedures are used during arrests, and how do these procedures lead people to feel confused, fearful, and dehumanized?
  2. If you were a guard, what type of guard would you have become? How sure are you?
  3. What prevented "good guards" from objecting or countermanding the orders from tough or bad guards?
  4. If you were a prisoner, would you have been able to endure the experience? What would you have done differently than those subjects did? If you were imprisoned in a "real" prison for five years or more, could you take it?
  5. Why did our prisoners try to work within the arbitrary prison system to effect a change in it (e.g., setting up a Grievance Committee), rather than trying to dismantle or change the system through outside help?
  6. What factors would lead prisoners to attribute guard brutality to the guards' disposition or character, rather than to the situation?
  7. What is "reality" in a prison setting? This study is one in which an illusion of imprisonment was created, but when do illusions become real? Contrast consensual reality and physical or biological reality, and explain the implications of the following poem (by PGZ):

Within the illusion of life,
Death is the only reality,
but
is Reality the only death?
Within the reality of imprisonment,
Illusion is the only freedom,
but
is Freedom the only illusion?

  1. What is identity? Is there a core to your self-identity independent of how others define you? How difficult would it be to remake any given person into someone with a new identity?
  2. Do you think that kids from an urban working class environment would have broken down emotionally in the same way as did our middle-class prisoners? Why? What about women?
  3. After the study, how do you think the prisoners and guards felt when they saw each other in the same civilian clothes again and saw their prison reconverted to a basement laboratory hallway?

http://www.prisonexp.org/