Stanford Prison Experiment

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Role Playing and its Toll

In “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo describes his study of how placing average, male, college students in a prison like environment proved that their roles dehumanized them as individuals by radically changing their perceptions and behaviors.

Before the experiment, the subjects were “emotionally stable, physically healthy, mature, law-abiding citizens” (734). With the flip of a coin ten men were chosen to be prisoners and eleven men guards. The participants were placed in the basement of the psychology department at Stanford University. In order to create a prison like atmosphere, the rooms were transformed into cells, subjects were issued uniforms, and “guards” were issued the appropriate guard-life accessories. The simulation was set up to minimize each prisoner’s individuality, including taking a radical step of requiring that they be addressed by numbers in place of their names.

Zimbardo reports how quickly the participants adjusted to their roles, taking on a persona of a prisoner or guard. Instantly, the participants started to take part in their roles, acting as if they were criminals or had the power of actual guards. The guards would become bored and would “find ways to amuse themselves, ridiculing recalcitrant prisoners, enforcing arbitrary rules, and openly exaggerating any dissension among the prisoners” (735). Over time the guards began to torment the prisoners becoming more aggressive and developed a disturbing relationship among them.

Furthermore, the participants who were subjected to being “prisoners” struggled with deprivation inherent to their roles. Because the first day went smoothly, the observers and guards were astounded at the rebellion the prisoners showed the next morning. The prisoners removed their numbers and hats and put their beds in front of the bar doors. The guards then decided they might as well play along, taunting the prisoners, barging into their...
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