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Fake Prisons, Real Prisoners

How long do you think it takes for a man to lose his identity? For him to start moulding himself to suit his surroundings?


A month? A year? 10 years?


Researchers at Stanford proved that it’ll only take 6 days.

Welcome to the Stanford Prison Experiment.



We often say that the institutions we belong to contribute heavily to our personalities. Researchers at the Stanford Psychological department thought so too. So they chose an institution, which supposedly brings about the most tangential personality change. A Prison.


The Stanford Prison Experiment was unlike most other experiments. Professor Philip Zimbardo wanted to learn how individuals conformed to societal roles. So when he built the experiment, he left no stone unturned. An experiment specific objective here was to study whether the sadistic behaviour of prison guards was due to their personality (i.e. dispositional) or due to the prison environment (i.e. situational).


The first step was to recruit the test subjects. An advertisement was released, detailing the nature of the study and 75 people responded. These 75 men then went through a barrage of interviews and personality tests to eliminate candidates with psychological problems, medical disabilities, or a history of crime or drug abuse. A pool of 24 candidates remained. Out of these (decided arbitrarily), half became the prisoners and the rest the guards.


Next, the prison atmosphere was simulated in the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department building. There were three cells, with three cots in each as well as a confinement cell or ‘The Hole’. Constant surveillance took place.

The researchers then took steps to humiliate the prisoners to instil a sense of oppression. There was a surprise blindfolded arrest and an interrogation. They were then deloused with a spray and given a dress or a smock to wear (again to hurt their masculinity). Each prisoner was given an ID number and had to wear a stocking cap for his head to imitate baldness and even had chains on their feet.


After this, the guards began asserting authority. The prisoners were rudely awakened from sleep by blasting whistles for the first of many "counts." This was a way to enforce the ID number and for them to lose their individual identity.

On the second day of the experiment, there was a rebellion which was harshly suppressed by the guards. They harassed and intimidated the prisoners, put them into solitary confinement and didn’t give them food. They even applied divide and rule tactics (https://www.prisonexp.org/rebellion). Prisoners were now feeling emotionally harassed.


One the third day, Prisoner #8612 began suffering from acute emotional disturbance, disorganized thinking, uncontrollable crying, and rage.

By now, a weird psychological shift had taken place. The researchers had started to believe they were the prison authorities and #8612 was trying to con them into releasing him.


During the next count, Prisoner #8612 told other prisoners, "You can't leave. You can't quit." Now the prisoners felt that they were actually imprisoned. Mind you it had only been three days and everyone had been told that this was just an experiment.

After this, a priest was called in. He then volunteered to contact their parents to get legal aid if they wanted him to, and some of the prisoners accepted his offer (Although all they had to do was say no to the experiment).

Soon after this, conditions escalated. Guards abused the prisoners relentlessly, many of whom were showing mental distress.


On the 6th day, the supposed two-week experiment came to an end.

This experiment came under a lot of criticism for human rights abuse and hampering the mental health of individuals. But it did shed some light on how much impact an institution or a 5-6 day event can have on an individual’s mental state. And how important it is for us to maintain a positive environment in our living and workplaces.


""I began to feel that I was losing my identity, that the person that I called Clay, the person who put me in this place, the person who volunteered to go into this prison – because it was a prison to me; it still is a prison to me. I don't regard it as an experiment or a simulation because it was a prison run by psychologists instead of running by the state. I began to feel that that identity, the person that I was that had decided to go to prison was distant from me – was remote until finally, I wasn't that, I was 416. I was really my number."





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