Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Stanford Prison Study

In 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo wanted to study the psychological effects of prison life. He advertised for volunteers and, with the help of consultants (one of whom was a former prisoner who had spent 16 years behind bars), prepared the basement of the Stanford Psychology building to be as much like a prison as possible. In order to be as true to reality as they could, he arranged for the randomly chosen Prisoners to be "arrested" by actual city policemen. 

After a surprise visit by uniformed policemen, they were handcuffed, taken to the police station, fingerprinted, booked, blindfolded, and placed in a holding cell. Soon they were transferred to the "Stanford Prison" where they were further dehumanized by being stripped, doused with anti-lice powder, and given a gown bearing their prison number, a stocking hat (made from ladies' nylons), rubber sandals, and finally were fitted with a locked chain around their right ankles. Their prison number was now the only thing they were to be known by; no more using names.

The humiliated Prisoners were placed 3 to a small cell. A tiny closet was prepared for "solitary confinement."

Meanwhile, the other half of the volunteers had been randomly given the job of Guards. They also were dressed the part, with uniforms, mirror sunglasses (so as to not show their eyes, making them more intimidating), and billy clubs.

The Guards were to keep law and order and to command the respect of the prisoners. Other than that, no specific instructions were given. 

The Prisoners were awakened throughout the night for arbitrary number checks. At first, the Prisoners did not take the Guards seriously, and the Guards retaliated by becoming more authoritative. As rebellious behavior escalated, so did the retaliations. The Guards made disobedient prisoners do push-ups (even stepping on their backs while they did them), demanded that all the Prisoners be naked, and put one particularly rebellious Prisoner in the 2X2 foot "solitary confinement" dark closet for hours at a time.

Prisoners were denied access to toilets on the whim of the Guards - just given a bucket to use which they were not always allowed to empty. Other times, the Prisoners were marched to the toilet down the hall, bags covering heads, chains on ankles, arms on the shoulders of the ones in front. At night, the Guards relieved their boredom by even more sadistic - and pornographic - treatment of the Prisoners.

Meanwhile, some of the powerless and frustrated Prisoners were variously rebelling, having breakdowns, screaming, crying, and refusing to eat, although most learned quickly to quietly comply. 

Even Dr. Zimbardo began to lose sight of his experiment and became embroiled in the drama of running the Prison. When faced with a rumor of an upcoming escape attempt, he tried to enlist the help of the police to "contain his prisoners," and when they refused, he covered the Prisoners' heads in bags and moved them all to a different floor of the building to thwart their plans.

He wrote, "It wasn't until much later that I realized how far into my prison role I was at that point -- that I was thinking like a prison superintendent rather than a research psychologist."

The planned two-week experiment was ended after only six days, largely as the result of a comment from one of Dr. Zimbardo's colleagues. When she witnessed the Prisoners marching chained and bagged to the toilet, she made no secret of her outrage, "It's terrible what you are doing to these boys!" Its morality seriously called into question and the obvious psychological distress of the participants marked the end of the "Stanford Prison." "We had created an overwhelmingly powerful situation -- a situation in which prisoners were withdrawing and behaving in pathological ways, and in which some of the guards were behaving sadistically. Even the 'good' guards felt helpless to intervene, and none of the guards quit while the study was in progress," later wrote the doctor.

The participants' sense of reality had shifted. The "prison" became their reality. When interviewed two months after the experiment, the Guards were dismayed at what they had done. At the time, they felt no guilt or shame, but afterwards, back in the real world, they were alarmed to see what they had been capable of doing.

This is the fundamental danger of the false reality of cult life. Its own skewed morality becomes the accepted and practiced norm, and in such a situation, anything can happen.


  1. Interesting article. I've been out of the COG for more than 35 years now, and have recently written a book about my experiences during the 15 years I spent in it. And yes, what we experienced in the COG is so much like what happened in this psychology experiment. Thanks for your blog. It's very good.

    1. It amazed me how subtle and powerful the manipulation of one's sense of normalcy can be in controlled situations.

      Thank you for your comment.

    2. I'm interested in reading your book. What's its title?

  2. Socialization. A core human psychology, hard-wired. Survival of the fittest. Adaptability. Perpetuation of the species.
    The circumstances of the Holocaust is a primary example. Even how Adolph Hitler came into power.

    Thanks for writing this.

  3. You and your readers might also be interested in the Milgram Experiment on obedience to authority figures; see details at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment

    Milgram summarized the experiment in his 1974 article, "The Perils of Obedience", writing:

    "... The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.
    Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority."

    1. You are right. I found the Milgram experiments enlightening. They helped me understand how I - a prudish, former Catholic - could matter-of-factly participate in the prostitution that was "flirty fishing." I wrote about that here: