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The Stanford Prison Experiment and Labelling Theory

The Stanford Prison Experiment and Labelling Theory

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Chris Mills. Originally submitted for Criminology at Trinity College, Dublin, with lecturer Dr. Ivana Bacik in the category of Law
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Chris Mills. Originally submitted for Criminology at Trinity College, Dublin, with lecturer Dr. Ivana Bacik in the category of Law

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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The Stanford Prison Experiment and Labelling Theory
The Stanford Prison Experiment is one of the best known and most ethically troublingsocial-psychology experiments of the past fourty years. The experimenters havedescribed it as a career-altering experience,
and it has inspired films, books and articles.This essay will describe the experiment and examine some of the conclusions reached bythe experimenters, as well as a number of critiques of those. It will then examine theexperiment and its results in the context of labelling theory.(A)
The Stanford Prison Experiment:
The Stanford Prison Experiment was set up by the social psychologist Philip Zimbardoand a number of his colleagues. Zimbardo has said that he had three principal reasons for wanting to establish this experiment: He wanted to test the surprising results of a similar experiment that had been conducted in one of his undergraduate classes; he wanted to testthe effect of situational variables on individual behaviour, and thereby to prove thesituational attribution thesis; and (most importantly according to Zimbardo) he wanted totest the effect of anonymity and deindividuation on behaviour.
The experiment involvedan attempt to recreate the principal elements of life in an American prison. They set outto elicit similar responses in the participants as would be felt in a real prison: power and powerlessness; control and oppression; satisfaction and frustration; arbitrary rule andresistance to authority; status and anonymity; and machismo and emasculation.
Those who participated in it were recruited through a set of newspaper advertisementslooking for men to participate in a paid psychological experiment on prison life. The
Zimbardo, Maslach and Haney ‘Reflections on the Stanford Prison Experiment: Genesis,Transformations, Consequences’ from Chapter 11 of Thomas Blass ed,
Obedience to Authority: Current  Perspectives on the Milgram Paradigm
(Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000),<http://www.prisonexp.org/pdf/blass.pdf> (visited 06 January 2011) at 22.
Philip Zimbardo, ‘The SPE: What it was, Where it came from, and What came out of it’ from Chapter 11of Thomas Blass ed,
Obedience to Authority: Current Perspectives on the Milgram Paradigm
(Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000), <http://www.prisonexp.org/pdf/blass.pdf> (visited 06 January2011) at 8-9.
Haney, Banks and Zimbardo, ‘Interpersonal Dynamics in a Simulated Prison’ (1973) 1 IJCP 69, at 72.
respondents to these advertisements were subjected to an array of psychological profilingtests, and the twenty four who were deemed most mature, most psychologically stable,and least involved in anti-social behaviour were selected to take part in the experiment.They were then randomly assigned roles as either prisoners or guards. The prison itself, part of which the guards were involved in building, was contained in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford. The chief investigator Zimbardo also played the role of  prison superintendent in the experiment. The guards were briefed by Zimbardo that theywere to “maintain the reasonable degree of order within the prison necessary for effectivefunctioning”
  but they were given no instruction beyond that. They were issued withguard uniforms, keys, nightsticks, and sunglasses, all of which were designed to promotea sense of power, anonymity, and group identity. The prisoners were brought into theexperiment with the help of the local police department who staged mock arrests of the participants, went through the usual administrative processes in dealing with them, andthen brought them to the prison. The prisoners had been unaware that this was in fact partof the experiment. On reaching the prison they were subjected to what Zimbardo hasdescribed as a “degradation ceremony”
 in which they were stripped, deloused, andissued their prison clothing; they were also read the prison rules by the superintendentZimbardo. The clothing and living conditions of the prisoners were designed both toreplicate those found in real prisons and to emasculate the prisoners. They were issued prisoner numbers and were only ever addressed by these; they wore cloth caps designedto deindividuate them; they wore no underwear and their clothing was ill-fitting so theywere forced to move in an unfamiliar way. They were kept in cramped cells whichhoused two inmates each, and were forced to rely on the guards to perform even the most basic of tasks. Since the prison itself was in a basement there were no windows in any of the cells and so the only sense of time was provided by meal times and ‘the count’. Thislatter procedure, designed by the experimenters as an opportunity for the two groups tointeract, involved the prisoners being removed from their cells and counted by the guards.Originally the count lasted a few minutes, but as the experiment wore on and the guardsgrew more into their roles of power the count could last for hours at a time.
Haney, Banks & Zimbardo, ‘Study of Prisoners and Guards in a Simulated Prison’ (1973) 9
 Naval  Research Reviews
1, at 7.
Zimbardo, note2,at 6.
Haney, Banks & Zimbardo, note4,at 9.
that one of the key events that dictated the course of the experiment was the prisoner revolt on day two. During this the prisoners barricaded themselves in their cellsand taunted the guards; the guards succeeded in putting the revolt down using a fireextinguisher. The ringleaders were put in solitary confinement. The prison guards then setabout trying to divide the prisoners, arbitrarily punishing some and rewarding others tofoment suspicion amongst them. This tactic worked, and soon the prisoners becamesuspicious of each other, and increasingly withdrawn and self-reliant. Some of the prisoners suffered severe psychological reactions and had to be released from theexperiment early. The power of the situation that had been created was also evident in thereaction of outsiders to it. Visiting family and friends did not question it, and reacted to itas though it was in fact a real prison situation, with some appealing to Zimbardo to belenient on their son.
A visiting priest was asked to get legal help for the prisoners. Themock parole board was even told by many of the prisoners that they were willing to giveup the money they had earned for participation (their only reason for being in theexperiment in the first place) in return for early release. Zimbardo himself was unable tosee the effect that the situation was having on the participants because of his own rolewithin the prison as a superintendent, and it was left to a visiting graduate student tofinally make him realise that the experiment had gone too far. The experiment, which wasdue to run for two weeks, was halted six days after it began.(B)
The Experimenters’ Conclusions:
Social-Psychology Conclusions
:The conclusions reached by the experimenters have been set out and refined in a number of articles since the experiment took place.In one of the earliest articles
 they noted that the participants changed their behaviour toreflect the roles expected of them, which tended to reject the dispositional hypothesis.Indeed one of the primary conclusions from the experiment is that normal, healthy peoplecan be transformed by social and institutional pressures, and that people respond to (what
Zimbardo, Banks, Haney & Jaffe, ‘The Mind is a Formidable Jailor: A Pirandellian Prison’
 New York Times Magazine
8 April 1973, at 41, 42.
Zimbardo, Banks, Haney & Jaffe, note7, at 42.
Haney, Banks & Zimbardo, note 4.

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