The Power of Situation – The Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted by Professor Philip G. Zimbardo in 1971 at Stanford University to explore the question of the power of situation to shape the moral behavior of participants. The role play involved simulating a prison in the basement of one of the buildings at Stanford. The study recruited male college students in good mental health and no history of violence as volunteers and randomly assigned them roles as guards and prisoners. The simulation was made as realistic as possible: “prisoners” were arrested by actual police officers, the guards were given uniforms and the prisoners were made to wear prison attire. The professor assumed the role of prison superintendent.

The situation quickly deteriorated: When the prisoners rebelled on the morning of the second day, the guards asserted their dominance through increasingly sadistic punishments that prefigured the abuses later seen in Abu Garib. By the fifth day of the experiment, five of the students needed to be released due to extreme stress; the others collapsed into numbed and docile obedience.

Professor Zimbardo observes that his own perception also seems to have been distorted. It was only when a colleague, Assistant Professor Christina Maslach visited the “prison” and pointed out to him the awfulness of his actions in allowing the experiment to continue, that Zimbardo was fully able to appreciate its human cost. He had to pull the plug on the experiment after only six days.

As Zimbardo writes, “We had created a dominating behavioral context whose power insidously frayed the seemingly impervious values of compassion, fair play, and belief in a just world” (3).

This experiment demonstrates the enormous power of situation. We might notice that this situation included well-defined roles, characterized by a semi-permanent absolute power differential, established by a clear authority figure and reinforced with identifying uniforms. We can also notice how the setting itself also reflected and supported the roles and rules, and thus behavior.

Finally, we might notice how the setting, roles and uniforms helped to shape the perspectives that led to the behavior of both the guards and prisoners. 

So, at this point, we might observe that while it is true that perceptions shape roles, rules and settings, and it is also true that settings, roles and rules shape perception.  Together, they function as a self-reinforcing system or we can use the word paradigm. Because paradigms are “self-sealing” to borrow the term from Steve March’s blog, they seem obvious, commonsensical and “God-given.”

Our takeaway here is to notice another point of power that we have to shift off our wheel of fear and onto the wheel of freedom — to create a shift in paradigm — and that is to shift the settings, roles, and rules that shape behavior. 

Zimbardo, Philip G. “Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment: A Lesson in the Power of Situation.” The Chronicle Review, 53, no. 30, p. B6. http://chronicle.com/weekly/v53/i30/30b00601.htm

One comment

  1. […] thing. Culture is hard to change because people identify with it. We are all susceptible to the Power of Situation. I actually found myself shouting at students when I first started out. I had seen my mentors doing […]

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