In 1971 the psychologist Philip Zimbardo decided to do an experiment that made the history of psychology and not only because he wanted to investigate human nature, but because the consequences were dramatic.
The Standford prison experiment
The prison experiment promoted by Zimbardo and married by some colleagues took place in the university of Standford, during the period of interruption of the lessons and had the aim of investigating the behavior of people based on their group.
The experiment is one of the best known academically and has also inspired several films, including Scheuring’s The Experiment from 2010.
What did it consist of? The researchers created a mock prison in the basement of the Standford University psychology building and selected 24 university students to perform the roles of detainees and guards.
All participants were selected by a larger group of 70 volunteers after interviews and personality tests with the aim of eliminating those with psychological problems, illness or criminal history and / or drug abuse.
To take part in the experiment, the volunteers decided to participate for a period of one to two weeks in exchange for $ 15 a day. Each cell housed three prisoners and included three beds. Other chambers were used for prison guards. In addition there was the hole, or the isolation chamber and another room used as a prison courtyard.
Precisely because there was no difference between them, the 24 volunteers were divided arbitrarily with the throwing of a coin into two groups: half guards and half prisoners. Prisoners were to remain in prison 24 hours a day until the end of the experiment, while the guards had 8-hour shifts and worked in groups of three men.
After each shift, the guards were allowed to return to their homes until their next shift. The researchers observed the behavior of prisoners and guards with hidden cameras and microphones.
Standford’s experiment was initially supposed to last 14 days, but was stopped after just six because the violence began. What was happening to those healthy, balanced, middle-class subjects, cultured and devoid of any deviant behavior?
After just two days, the detainees began to protest about their condition, tore off their shirts and locked themselves in the cells.
The guards began to practice increasingly violent physical and psychological forms towards them. The prisoners were forced to sing songs, to defecate in buckets that they could not empty, to clean the latrines with bare hands.
Zimbardo, after an attempt to escape from the prisoners repressed harshly, was forced to end his experiment as the participants began to show serious signs of dissociation from reality, psychological disorders, fragility and sadism as appropriate.
The prisoners reacted in various ways to their sense of frustration and helplessness. At first, some rebelled against the guards. Four prisoners had emotional crises as a means of escape from the situation. Another developed a rash of psychosomatic origin throughout his body when he learned that his request for release had been rejected. Still others tried to deal with everything by acting as model prisoners, always obeying the requests of the guards. One of them was even nicknamed “Sarge” for his military manner of carrying out orders.
The Lucifer effect
After the experiment, Zimbardo defined this behavior as the ‘Lucifer effect’: environment and institutions decisively influence the behavior of each individual. The experiment, according to the psychologist, showed that the assumption of an institutional role leads the individual to behave without fear, shame, pity that under normal conditions regulate their actions, while observance of the rules leads a subject not to have plus no behavioral autonomy, but to conform to the collective will of the group.