This article provides examples showing that the main results and causes of the Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment relate to the area and topic that might be lightly mentioned in a few sources, but never is the main focus of professional psychological or social discussions.
Even if you have heard about this psychological study, you may still look at this short (only 3.5 minutes) 2015 movie trailer from YouTube:
As a practical example of behavior of guards in prisons, here are some disturbing photos from an Iraqi prison run by US soldiers in 2008 (the video below starts with photos, no introduction):
Other sources make similar claims. For example, Wikipedia claims that the main focus of discussion of this study are about “psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard”. This is the definition and first sentence from current (October 2015) version of Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Study. Later, in the first paragraph, this Wiki article suggests that this is a “classic study on the psychology of imprisonment”.
Was it about evil human nature or something else?
Many psychologists, when analyzing Stanford Prison Experiment by Dr. Zimbardo claim existence of intrinsic human evil and that, in reality, humans can be compassionate, cooperating, social, altruistic, and ethical. All these qualities can be present or appear in some conditions or situations, but the sobering reality of life, when discussing human nature, is simple: Each person present on the Earth right now is here only because all his or her ancestors passed their genes into the future or, in simpler terms, passed their genes, or, in even simpler terms, had sex that led to appearance and survival of their offsprings.
Those who were “altruistic” or unselfish in this area of sexual relationships did not left any genes. Hence, there are nobody on the Earth now to defend usefulness of their altruism, selflessness, and cooperation. It is also true that humans can leave and easily adapt to living in peace with each other even to the degree when crimes, punishment, police, and prisons become totally unnecessary.
However, if we discuss “human nature” or, as I rather call them, intrinsic (hidden) programs of human behavior (or what made your existence and life on the Earth possible), we need to consider differences between males and females that was common in human evolution.
Imprisonment from the survival-replication viewpoint
Taking prisoners and keeping/feeding them, mainly, due to results of wars, have been common for millennia in human history all around the globe. Looking back into human evolution, it is obvious that in order to analyze some “hidden” tendencies or programs that governed behavior of humans in such situations, we need to look into very old times, even before bronze or stone age where over 90% of human evolution took place.
Historical evidence suggests that it was common, in such conditions, that victorious males kill all males of the opposite or defeated tribe, while keeping all females for their replication value. The arithmetic of the situation is very simple. Each imprisoned male of the opposite tribe represents potential competitor. Even each boy of the defeated tribe represents a competitor or rival in a future gene pool, unless these boys were castrated causing permanent sterilization (this was one of the practices used in the past).
Keep in mind that this killing other males of “defeating the competition”, as they say in modern male dating industry, is not the only program that controls behavior of males. Males have equally strong tendency to unite with each other in teams in order to defeat other males. (That makes many types of modern games and sport much more popular among males rather than females. Therefore, the spirit of competition between two male teams is graver and can often be dead serious in comparison with the spirit present when female teams compete.)
Finally, there is another situational program that is exceptionally important for effective survival and replication of human species. In order to prevent inner conflicts and make a unit or team of males competitive and effective in their pursuits, there is a program related to obedience to authority.
Depending on the specific situation, during Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment,there were behavioral expressions of all these three genetic survival-replication programs:
- Elimination of competition from other males: imprisonment and division on the guard and prisoners makes this effect look “natural”
- Unification of males in teams in order to defeat other males and take their females for replication
- Obedience to authority in order to make team efforts more coherent, effective, and organized
How other details would change the dynamic of the situation for the Stanford Prison Study
There are many specific details that could dramatically influence, as many authors pointed out, the result of the Prison Experiment conducted at the Stanford University. For example, if all imprisoned males were too old and infertile, there would be greatly reduced hostility and hatred between the prisoners and the guard.
Vice versa, if there are prisoners who behave as Alpha males (even without direct or open confrontation with the guards), we can predict that these prisoners would be subjects to most vicious attacks and persecutions from the guard. By “Alpha” males, I mean those imprisoned men who can trigger in guards the idea, even a subconscious one, that these imprisoned males possess high replication value (i.e., are attractive for females) due to their height, facial masculinity, voice, physical force (big muscles), wit, wisdom, independence, and so forth.
Assume that all prisoners were young fertile females (for example, in their 20s and 30s), while all guardians are males in their 20-50s. What would be the outcomes of this experiment? The results would be influenced by many other factors and conditions, such as:
- marital status of the guard males
- their place of living/sleep
- general social norms, rules, and expected behavior in male-female relationships
- social norms, rules, and expected behavior in prison-guard relationships
- specific situational factors related to this prison, its past history and current unspoken rules, current leadership, unnecessary secrecy, and so forth.
For example, if such an experiment is conducted in Stanford in 1930s-40s, the result could be very different from the matching study conducted in the same place/building but in the 2010s. Results would also differ among cultures and countries.
It would not be unexpected, for this imagery experiment (with male guards and fertile female prisoners), depending on conditions and details, that, in one year, from 10 up to 100% female prisoners would get pregnant.
A totally different dynamic of the situation may occur if all guards are females, while prisoners are males. Here, we also have different situations depending on age and fertility of both groups.
Stories from sailors after shipwrecks
Old sources (e.g., see Shock Wave (Dirk Pitt Adventures), by Clive Cussler) provide ancient stories what happened with groups of sailors (males and females) who survived their shipwrecks and got “imprisoned” on some islands. If there were females present, then these females could be shared by 2 or more male sailors. However, in this case, in some weeks or months, males started to kill each other.
If, on the other hand, there is a more rare situation, when there are 2 or more females that belong to the same male, all these females could get along with each other.
Finally, one may hypothesize about the outcomes of the prison study that had only females as participants.
Implications from the Stanford Prison Experiment
There are many conclusions that can be obtained from this study and its analysis present in modern psychology textbooks and other resources. Here are some of these conclusions:
- Human behavior is controlled by numerous hidden programs that can be triggered by specific situations
- Claims about “evil nature”, “dark forces”, and “sadistic essence” of humans (or even human males) only increase an element of drama (moralistic division on extremes related to good and bad, moral and immoral) since everything can be explained using simple, down-to-Earth facts and ideas
- Teaching of modern psychology and psychology textbooks are full of these elements of drama probably stemming from teaching of Sigmund Freud who suggested presence of these dark forces and evil nature in the human psyche. (He could simply admit that, after decades of observations and analysis, he could not find sense in human behavior and that would be a clear statement of a true scientist.)
Apart from these theoretical or scientific conclusions, there are also practical implications.
Now it becomes clear that this study was not about “effects of prisons on human behavior” or “psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard”. Thus, leading psychology sources and psychology textbooks provide incorrect general views on this experiment and its nature. This experiment was about expression of survival-replication programs and not effects of prisons.
There are also implications in other areas, such as democracy and human rights.
Since modern children (and even adults) are not taught basic hidden situational programs that govern or influence behavior of humans (as impulses, emotions, and desires), popular ideas about human rights, freedoms, universal brotherhood, equality, democracy, etc. are notions and ideas that currently have intrinsic elements of drama and, hence, all these notions carry seeds of their opposites since drama implies switches between good and bad, moral and immoral. These hidden elements of drama promote and contribute to new human persecutions, suppressions, and aggressions, dependance and coercion, inequality, and autocracy.
Another set of effects and conclusions relate to the modern war on terrorism which also has many similarities to the Stanford Prison Experiment: there are guards and “subjects” or targets (possible terrorists) in the Western world. Similar, but reversed conditions exist in, for example, Muslim or Arab countries and many other parts of the world.
Thus, work of modern national security agents (those who watch in secret cameras and control millions of human stooges-confederates) has all general characteristics similar to Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment. There is even one more additional factor. In the prison constructed at the Stanford University in 1971, activities of guards were monitored by a higher authority. It is a common practice of modern NSAs (national security organizations, such as FBI, MI-5. CSIS, etc.) to provide secret agents with legal immunity or exemption from penalties or legal requirements granted to secret agents by authorities and statutes.
In science and business, laws do not protect names of people, crimes that they commit, and their other activities (unless it relates to sensible privacy). In the world of security intelligence, crimes and even the main real enemies and main organizers of terror-related crimes are hidden from public view. This creates additional “incentives” for modern agents from NSAs to express their emotions and feelings in relation to targets that they monitor. There are many pages on this site that describe such activities nearly never discussed in public media and relate to modern social taboo topics.
Haney, C., Banks, C., & Zimbardo, P. (1973). Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison. Internat. J. of Criminology & Penology, 1(1), p.69-97.
Zimbardo, P. G. (1973). On the ethics of intervention in human psychological research: With special reference to the Stanford prison experiment. Cognition, 2(2), p. 243-256.
THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT (PDF): A Simulation Study of the Psychology of Imprisonment conducted August 1971 at Stanford University.