The Standford Prison Experiment as a Living Laboratory

These articles detail Philip Zimbardo’s infamous psychology experiment entitled The Standford Prison Experiment.  This experiment was designed to see if people would take on a certain persona when put into different situations.  To test this, 24 males were taken and split into two different groups.  Half would serve as prisoners in this experiment and the other half would serve as the guards in the prison.  With consent and the knowledge that the participants could leave the study at any point, the prisoners were “arrested” and the experiment began.  This psychology experiment soon turned very dark, with abuse of the prisoners by the guards occurring very rapidly.  It was clear that both sets of individuals had fully taken on the different personas that Zimbardo had arbitrarily put them in.  And though the experiment was going to last for two full weeks, it was cut short and ended after 6 days, because of the intensity of the abuse that was occurring within the study.

This study highlights many themes that are quite common in a living laboratory, while also being quite unique in the fact that it was a psychology experiment with an artificial setting, as these men were not actually living in a prison.  And what also made this study quite interesting was how abuse was not only happening within the experiment, but what the horrific results of the experiment demonstrates about treatment in prisons in general.

This experiment tied back into the theme of experimenting on people with limited power.  The entirety of the experiment rested on the backs of the prisoners, who were brutally tortured and many of whom were emotional damaged for a long time after the experiment ended.  This type of abuse on a certain group of people for the knowledge, benefit and amusement of others is reminiscent to many of the living laboratories discussed in class.  And the horrific results of the experiment, of how guards will treat their prisoners, can be extrapolated to a different laboratory, the current prison system in the United States.  This experiment shows that within the prison system, there are common themes of abuse of the powerless by the powerful and that the people within them are marginalized.  And this abuse in the prison system does nothing to rehabilitate the people within the system, and rather feeds into the vicious cycle of incarceration that occurs in this country.

4 thoughts on “The Standford Prison Experiment as a Living Laboratory”

  1. Great post and interesting analysis! What I find to be one of the most interesting–and telling–parts of the experiment is the way in which half of the group had been given, or equipped, with power. The group started off at the same level of position–they were all being experimented on. Yet, once half of the group was given a powerful position, things turned for the worse. This makes me think about the way power is used and dealt with; how can those who seem “like you” quickly abuse their abilities once given the opportunity?

  2. Great post. I believe that the Stanford Prison Experiment is definitely a living laboratory. I remember learning about the experiment the summer before my freshman year. Despite the experiment just being disturbing and awful, the key thing I learned from it was the notion of power. Even though the experiment took place in an artificial setting, the fact that a notion of power was granted to certain individuals was enough to make them feel that they had control over those who weren’t granted the same power. Therefore, it is not the possession of actual power, but the made-up thought that one possess power that fuels these forms of abuse.

  3. Your comments on the actual prison industrial complex are right on, Olivia. What you said about the “theme of experimenting on people with limited power” strikes me, especially in the context of a simulated environment where, as Victoria and Matthew both point out, power and powerlessness, power relations at large, are controlled attributes. I can’t help but think of The Hunger Games and the moment when Katniss makes the ultimate revolutionary move and reveals the game for what it is: a living laboratory.

  4. Great post. I have been quite interested in the Stanford Prison Experiment myself, specifically its role in coining the term Lucifer effect (the changes in behavior in response to power) and I think that your post makes a great point about the lack of actual rehabilitation in these institutions. I think that the mistreatment of inmates starts two vicious circles – one, as you mentioned, is recurrent incarceration as prisoners do not receive support, so the idea of imprisonment as correction fails; the other is the way society regards incarcerated people and refuses them reintegration, as they shun them as ‘’evil doers who never change’’, hence encouraging imprisonment without looking at the trends leading to multiple incarcerations. I also find the design of the experiment faulty, as the test subjects were unaware of the onset of the experiment and the time of its end, so that, I believe, encouraged them to not revolt against abuse in a timely manner (I think there was a revolt, which resulted in more violence enacted by the guards though). It’s so sad that acclaimed scientists like Dr Zimbardo, who know how subtle the human mind is, are eager to breach its limits and hurt for the sake of scientific success… I sometimes get so disappointed with science 🙁

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