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15 Disturbing Facts About The Stanford Prison Experiment

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15 Disturbing Facts About The Stanford Prison Experiment

“What happens when you put good people in an evil place?” That was the question Philip Zimbardo, a professor of psychology, was trying to find the answer to. If you hadn’t heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment before 2015, you likely heard of it when the movie, of the same name and based on the true accounts, was released two years ago.

It all started in 1971 when Zimbardo led a group of student volunteers, split in half and designated to roles of “prison guards” and “prisoners” through a unique experiment over the course of six shocking days. The main goal of this infamous experiment was to test the psychological effects of power on people. They did this by pitting students with sudden power against students with sudden loss of power against each other and studying their behavioral changes under a microscope. Zimbardo and his team hoped to discover what inherent personality traits, if any at all, would be the main reason behind the abusive pattern often seen in prisons.

The Stanford Prison Experiment was so influential in its appalling outcome that it has actually changed the way prisons are run in the U.S. One example of this is that minors who have been accused of federal crimes are no longer jailed in the proximity of adult prisoners, for fear of violence against them, until their trial at which time their housing arrangements will be further assessed. The result of the experiment was so distressing that it is covered in most psychology classes and is a common topic for ethical debates. Read on to investigate fifteen disturbing facts about the Stanford Prison Experiment for yourself.

15. It Was Funded By The U.S. Office Of Naval Research

Many people who have heard of the experiment are not aware that the entire operation, including payment for the prisoner and prison guard outfits, meals, compensation for the student volunteers and other general research costs were funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research. The United States Navy were as curious as Zimbardo and his team to know what the root causes were for the difficulties (from minor verbal spats to full-fledged allegations of serious abuse) between the guards and prisoners in the United States Navy as well as the United States Marine Corps prison systems.

Military prisons are used to house prisoners of war and unlawful combatants as well as those who have been convicted of offenses within the military court. Wanting to learn why and how guard/prisoner relationships deteriorate so quickly, especially in the case of military prison guard and military criminal – it makes sense that the U.S. Navy would have a hand in funding the research. But given the severity of what happened during the experiment, it might seem just too convenient that who funded the Stanford Prison Experiment isn’t one of the first facts we learn about.

14. The Jekyll And Hyde Effect

Christina Maslach was eager to join the team of evaluators. She was a close friend to Zimbardo (they were actually dating at the time) and being a UC-Berkeley psychologist with a brand new fresh doctorate, she had a lot of value to bring to the table. On the fifth day of the experiment, she decided to walk about and chat up some young men who were waiting for their prison guard shifts to start. Christina especially enjoyed talking with one young man in particular and she described him as “charming, funny and smart.” At the same time and somewhat secretly, Christina had also been keeping a look out for the one they called “John Wayne.” Some of the other researchers had told her about a prison guard they had privately nicknamed “John Wayne” for his ruthless and sadistic treatment of the prisoners. Later, she asked one of the researchers to point out “John Wayne.” When they did, she was blown away to see the charming, funny and smart man she had enjoyed chatting with earlier.

13. “We Did Not End It Soon Enough.” – Philip Zimbardo

Zimbardo has called his (now) wife Christina Maslach a hero for insisting that the experiment be called off earlier than planned, on the sixth day because of her concern for the students’ welfare. Out of the fifty people who witnessed the research being done during the experiment, Maslach was the only one to say it needed to stop. Being a pure scientific researcher through and through, Zimbardo wanted to see the outcome of the planned two-week prison simulation. But Christina had a more realistic approach and was worried for their safety. Dehumanization seemed to be beginning to set in. Things were getting out of control fast and she feared that someone would end up seriously injured or worse.

Later, Zimbardo commented that the experiment was cut off “because people suffered and others were allowed to inflict pain and humiliation on their fellows over an extended period of time. And yes, although we ended the study a week earlier than planned, we did not end it soon enough.”

12. The Prison Guards Had What Can Only Be Described As “Quiet Rage”

It was just six days in the 70s but so much happened within that tiny window of time, though it probably seemed like a month or more to the prisoners. Zimbardo noted that many prisoners seemed to accept their roles and internalized the fact that they were locked up. Some wanted to apply for “parole” which meant they wouldn’t get paid. However the option for parole was really kind of a trick because in the time it would take for the “board” to approve or deny their parole, the experiment would soon be over and the only difference would be that the parole applicants would be out of pay. A disturbing fact is that even after Zimbardo explained this to the students, they still accepted that option, believing that they deserved to pay their time in jail because of the deep internalization.

It’s possible that the guards internalized with their role even more, accepting the authoritative role and taking it to another level with sadism. What can only be described as “quiet rage”, the guards seemed to turn on a seething quality when they reported for a shift and slipped on that khaki uniform.

11. Degradation Process Included Making Fun Of The Prisoners’ Genitals

The student volunteers known as prisoners only wore short smocks with numbers embroidered on them instead of names to further dehumanize them and stocking caps so that they would all look similar and not have individualized identifying features as well as chains locked around one ankle. But apparently being pants-less was simply not enough. The prison guards made fun of the men for their pale exposed legs, the fact that they were wearing “dresses” (not very fair, was that?) and the size of their manhood that they would reportedly see during bathroom breaks which happened inside a bucket in their cells. Speaking of bathroom breaks, one of the popular punishments over the six days included forcing prisoners to keep their filled buckets in their cells. So many levels of wrong.

10. Southern Accents And Southern Justice In Sunny California

One of the remarkably disturbing aspects of the experiment is how the sudden burst of power changed not just the faux prison guards’ attitudes but their very sense of being seemed to have gotten a new set of DNA somehow.

“This man had been transformed,” Christina Maslach is quoted as saying of one of the student volunteers turned prison guard. “He was talking in a different accent,­ a Southern accent, which I hadn’t recalled at all. He moved differently, and the way he talked was different, not just in the accent, but in the way he was interacting with the prisoners. It really took my breath away.”

It is unsettling to think that not just someone but a group of previously decent people with no violent or criminal histories could change their behavior at such a deep level so quickly.

9. Faking Insanity In An Attempt To Escape

“I’m f—ed up! I got to get out of here!” These were the cries coming from the terrified prisoner #8612. The exact transcript of his meltdown is as follows: “They won’t let me out. You can’t get out of here. God damn it. I’m f—ed up! You don’t know it, you don’t know it. I mean, Jesus Christ, I’m burning up inside. Don’t you know? I can’t take it! I gotta go. To a doctor, anything. I can’t take it. I’m f—ed up. I don’t know how to explain it. I’m f—ed up inside. I want out! And I want out now!”

Zimbardo says that the prisoner came up with the plan that if he acted crazy, they would have to release him. It worked because soon after, they decided to release just prisoner #8612, identified as Doug Korpi. Korpi says that he has never screamed so loud in his life and never been so upset in his life. He said it was the experience of being out of control that pushed him over the edge.

8. They Got Paid How Much To Go Through That?

According to current inflation rates, $15 in 1971 would be $90.99 today in 2017. Not too shabby for some college kids looking to earn a few bucks over the summer break, right? $15 per day for two weeks adds up $210. Today, that total amount would have been $1,273.86 which is nothing to sneeze at especially for those college kids paying their own way. But when you take into consideration the mental and emotional torment that many found themselves suffering from in the short amount of time spent in the makeshift prison, it seems like a bargain price for anguish. And it was not just the prisoners who suffered. The researchers noticed that one of the prison guards, in particular, seemed to be distancing himself from the group as much as possible. He seemed to be very uncomfortable doling out punishment to the prisoners and with what his fellow guards were doing. To achieve this distance, he designated himself as a gopher and was more than happy to fetch things that were needed.

7. Professor Of Psychology Played The Role Of Warden

As you know by now, it was Prisoner #8612, Doug Korpi who started to feel that things weren’t right and spoke up first to the group. He became the unofficial leader of the prisoners’ rebellion. He was also the first to become vocal about quitting the experiment. When he brought his concerns to the attention of the researchers, Zimbardo acted as the warden.

“Well, I can see to it that the guards don’t hassle you personally and in return,” Warden Zimbardo said to Korpi, “All I would like is some information from time to time about what the prisoners are doing so essentially what I’m saying is I’d like you to be a snitch, an informer so think it over and it you still want to leave, fine.”

Feeling confused on this and possibly only hearing parts of the conversation, Korpi returned to the cell and told the other prisoners that none of them were allowed to leave, starting a frenzy which led to multiple problems for the prison guards and of course, the “warden.”

6. A Threat Of Retaliation For Freedom, Dismantling Of The Prison And Its Reconstruction Takes A Heavy Toll

Somehow a rumor got started that Doug Korpi, the only prisoner to have been released at the time was planning to come back with some buddies of his and free all of the prisoners. Well, surely this would have ruined the experiment for Zimbardo and he had no plans of letting that happen by a former faux prisoner who wasn’t even part of the experiment any longer. Because of the alleged threat, the prison guards helped dismantle the prison in the basement of Jordan Hall and moved the materials to be set up again along with the prisoners to another location on Stanford property. As you can imagine, this was a ton of work but it was worth it to know that the experiment was safe. Zimbardo waited in the corridor for Korpi and his friends to show up. He had planned to tell them that the experiment was over. But they never showed. All of the work the guards had done had been for nothing. They decided to take their anger out on the prisoners. The researchers noticed that the level of humiliating abuse rose quickly after they set up the new prison.

5. That Khaki Uniform Changes Everything

Dave Eshleman took the job as experiment guard over flipping pizzas. He never could have guessed that he would be one of the most influential student volunteers of the experiment. He admitted in an interview that he considered himself, at eighteen, to be confrontational and arrogant but he said that there was just something about that khaki uniform that transformed him into an authoritative figure.

“Once you put a uniform on and are given a job to keep these people in line, you really become that person once you put on that khaki uniform, you put on the glasses, you take that nightstick…” Eshleman has said. By nightstick, he was referring to the wooden batons the guards were given and instructed to never use. But they got use.

Another disturbing fact is that Eshleman said right before the experiment began, he had watched the movie, Cool Hand Luke. The movie from 1967 is a drama about a man serving time in prison with a sadistic warden and prison guards who try to make his life hell. One has a southern accent and Eshleman said that he based his “character” off of him.

4. The Students Were Really Arrested!

It was a simulated arrest. But it felt real. That’s because the real Palo Alto police actually took part in arresting the student volunteers just as they would arrest a real criminal. Zimbardo wanted the experiment to feel as real as possible starting with stage one. The Palo Alto police arrested the student prisoners throughout town on a “mass arrest” mission, citing the students for violating penal codes 211, armed robbery and burglary, a 459 PC. Each student was picked up at their dorm or apartment on a Sunday morning, searched and handcuffed in public. Unless the students had told their family, neighbors or dorm-mates about the experiment they had signed up for, onlookers would have suspected that they were really being arrested.

Arresting the students versus having them simply show up on Day 1 and sign in served the purpose to help mentally prepare them for what was to come so they could get in the role of a prisoner.

3. A Researcher Got Sick To Her Stomach By Seeing The Prison Guards’ Treatment Of The Prisoners

When Christina Maslach said she first saw the prison guards escorting the prisoners with paper bags over their heads, she felt sick to her stomach. She never expected to have a visceral reaction when she observed the experiment and at first thought that she was going to be bored watching a bunch of students sit around all day. But after witnessing the dehumanizing degradation, she felt so strongly that the prison guards were taking things too far that was physically nauseated. The paper bags served many purposes. They disoriented the prisoners, they furthered the sense that they had no control and further established the power that the guards had over them and finally, they were just another reason to humiliate them just because they could. If any of the other researchers or observers had felt that the “paper bag treatment” was something that needed to be stopped or had a visceral reaction, they kept it to themselves.

2. The Guards Enjoyed Their Volunteer Job A Little Too Much

In an interview, Dave Eshleman said, “I arrived independently at the conclusion that this experiment must have been put together to prove a point about prisons being a cruel and inhumane place and therefore I would do my part *chuckle* to help those results come about. I was a confrontational and arrogant 18-year-old at the time and I said, somebody ought to stir things up a bit here.”

Prisoners were repeatedly woken up in the middle of the night and forced to perform humiliating tasks such as clean out toilets with their bare hands. Here is another statement from Dave Eshleman known as the “John Wayne” of the Stanford Prison Experiment:

“We made it a point to not give them any sense of comfort of what to expect, that anything could happen to them at any time including being rousted from their sleep at any hour and forced to stand up in a line and have me hurl insults at them and make them do exercises. When you interrupt peoples’ sleep, they tend to become a little disoriented and since there was no daylight in the prison, they had no idea if it was night or day. I think I was the instigator of the harassment.”

1. The Alternate Prisoner Who Walked Into A Madhouse

With the departure of the infamous prisoner #8612, Doug Korpi, the researchers needed to contact one of the alternates on the standby list to fill his place. That’s how Clay Ramsay also known as Prisoner #416 came into the picture. The same day that he received the call, he walked into the building where he was blindfolded, strip searched and deloused (or just a simulation of delousing).

Zimbardo said that it’s possible that Ramsay had it worst of all. Even though he was there for the shortest amount of time, all of the other prisoners had time to acclimate to the nightmarish situation while Ramsay walked right into a madhouse. Ramsay wasn’t spared from Eshleman aka John Wayne’s attention. Eshleman forced Ramsay to perform bizarre stunts such was walking like Frankenstein while professing his love for another prisoner. Let’s hope that Eshleman got a nice quiet job as an accountant and not something more, um, opportunistic like a correctional officer.

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