By Meredith Hamilton

In 1971, a strange advertisement appeared in a local Palo Alto newspaper. The Psychology Department at Stanford University was calling for male college-aged participants in an experiment that would go down in infamy. Twenty-four physically and mentally healthy men, all white and mostly middle class, were selected for the experiment. Nine were assigned the role of prisoners and nine were assigned the role of prison guards. The remaining 6 men were designated as alternates. The basement floor of Jordan Hall on Stanford’s campus was transformed into a prison. The main corridor was designated as the common space and labs were blocked off as cells. There were no windows, no clocks, and the bland white walls provided no stimulation. The prisoners were given white shifts to wear and no undergarments. Each man’s right ankle was chained and they wore nylon caps to simulate a shaved head. They were not allowed to use the bathroom without permission. The guards were given matching uniforms, sunglasses to hide their eyes, and bobby sticks. The psychologists in charge of the experiment hoped to test their hypothesis that violence and abuse in prisons is caused by the inherent personality traits of the guards and prisoners.

The results were startling.

All the men had started on the same power level – volunteers. But in a mere six days, there was a clear divide in psychological behavior between the guards and the prisoners. All men became much different than who they were at the beginning of the week. The prisoners, whose names had been replaced by the numbers sewn to their white shifts, were distressed, volatile, and had forgotten their freedom. They could have left at any time during the experiment. The guards were distrustful of the prisoners and many were eager to subdue and humiliate their prisoners with force.

The program, which was supposed to last two weeks, ended prematurely after 6 days. The men’s psyches were in serious danger, as well as their physical well-being. The prisoners were being denied basic human needs and were being severely punished whenever a guard felt he had been disrespected. The prisoners’ humanity had been easily forgotten.

Nothing in the men’s records foretold how they would react to their roles. Once their reality was altered, and their identities stripped, it was remarkably easy for their personalities to change.

This experiment raised important questions about the treatment of prisoners in state and private prisons around the nation. However, little has been done in the past 30 years to improve the living conditions in prisons and much has been done to worsen them. It is also a fascinating expose on human nature – we are capable of committing unthinkable acts with the right environment and a change of the rules.

To learn more about the Stanford Prison Experiment, join us this weekend (Friday through Monday, July 15 to 18) at 7 p.m. and Monday at 1:30 p.m. in our Little Cinema as we show the 2015 film The Stanford Prison Experiment.



The Stanford Prison Experiment, a dramatic film based on the real-life research of Dr. Philip Zimbardo is screening at the Berkshire Museum Little Cinema Friday, July 15 through Monday, July 18. Click for tickets and showtimes.

Featured photo: Still from The Stanford Prison Experiment, copyright 2015 Coup d’Etat Films, Sandbar Pictures, Abandon Pictures.