The Prison Study Experiment, IRL

The world at the moment is in a pitiful state, I mean not that it never was, but in an even more pitiful state, or maybe our eyes are fully opened to it. We have always been plagued with racism, casteism, discrimination, prejudice and hate, for how many ever years mankind exists. So this is nothing new. A lot of us or our family members have even played a small or big role in it also. But it’s quite evident that most people now aren’t going to be turning a blind eye from it, and will speak up against it. Specifically, today, I wish to brood about is how the abuse of law and order, is so blatantly seen in a lot of countries around the world.

I am the grand daughter, and also the niece of two retired police officers, and I’m proud to say so. I have immense respect for the men AND women of uniform, because I have had a front seat view to the personal sacrifices that they have made for the community when they could’ve been sitting at home with their own families. This is a reason why when people abuse the entire police force and generalise that they all are corrupt and power hungry, I disagree. But at the same time, I am not blind to the ugly side of the profession and agree how some badge holders do not deserve their titles and disgustingly misuse their power to carry out their own agendas of violence and hatred. One wonders how an individual that has decided to choose a calling that is wholeheartedly devoted to protecting the citizens is doing the complete opposite. One questions, has the power of the uniform gone to their heads?

The Stanford Prison Experiment

Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo, a psychology professor, was curious to see the psychological effects of perceived power. What he did was he put an ad out asking for volunteers that are willing to participate in a study of the psychological effects of prison life. Out of 75 applicants, 25 men that were deemed to be the most physically and mentally stable were selected, and none of them knew each other, not even their names.

With the help of a coin toss, the participants were randomly assigned the role of a ‘prisoner’ or a ‘guard’. The prisoners were treated like any other criminal right from their ‘arrest’ to the prison uniform to the way they were instructed to obey the guards. The guards were also given a uniform, a whistle, a billy club (lathi in Hindi) and a pair of sunglasses, so that there is minimal to no eye contact. The reason this was done was because eye contact is a very powerful way to humanise the individual in front of you.

Another way to make sure that the situation is dehumanised as much as possible was through the issuing of ID numbers to each prisoner. That was their identity, a set of numbers rather than their name.

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The guards were told that they are allowed to maintain law and order however they felt necessary, EXCEPT using physical violence. That was strictly not permitted. Now, interestingly enough, within only a couple of hours, the guards started to assert authority by harassing the prisoners by blasting their whistles at ungodly hours just so they wake up (for no reason). This harassment soon started to tease the no getting physical rule, for example, the prisoners were made to do push ups with the guards stepping on their backs.

This quickly led to a rebellion by the prisoners against the guards, paralleling the way we tend to see in real prison situations, which in turn made the guards even more aggressive and ruthless. They started asserting more and more dominance on the prisoners, eventually making them submissive and entirely dependent on the guards.

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The situation got so bad that in less than 36 hours, a prisoner presented complaints of acute emotional disturbances, disorganised thinking, uncontrollable crying and rage; and soon was let go from the experiment. One by one, the prisoners started breaking down, and the experiment that was intended to be of two weeks was terminated within 6 days.

Deindividuation-Is this an explanation?

Now, we need to remember that every single person in this experiment was a layman, a participant, which makes this seem so bizarre. A possible explanation could be the occurrence of deindividuation, which is a state in which you conform to the role that you are assigned to and it’s norms so intensely that you detach from your sense of identity and eventually your personal responsibility. This makes a lot of sense since many of the guards stated that they felt so involved and committed to the role that they were playing that they forgot that this isn’t actually real life. The uniform that clearly defined them as a guard further aided this feeling.

Coming back to real life, donning a uniform does make one feel like one is somewhat of an authority and this doesn’t just apply to policemen, but army men, doctors, businessmen (a suit is an unofficial uniform) and so many other professions. Speaking from my personal experience, when I used to work at a general hospital in my city, the white coat that I was required to wear did make me feel extremely professional and gave me a sense of authority, as it usually does.

Conforming to your professional role isn’t wrong. That behaviour is exactly what defines you as a policeman or a doctor or whatever. But like everything, there is a limit and a line that you mustn’t cross-which is when you dehumanise the individual in front of you and lose the essence of who you are entirely.

How can this be dealt with?

These are few suggestions that come to mind, and I’m sure that there are even more such suggestions that could be implemented.

  1. Especially with professions that cater to the community, the emotional quotient and general mental fitness should be taken into consideration apart from credentials and qualifications. Make sure that trained and properly qualified professionals are doing these assessments. What is the point of being a doctor if you can’t show even a bit of compassion towards your patient and their families?
  2. Employers must make sure that even after hiring the individual, activities promoting mental health must be conducted along with routine checks of mental fitness. A lot of times, working for the community comes with its own set of frustrations which are channelised through acts of authority proving to be brutal and unhealthy. Displacement of anger and frustration needs to be addressed and worked upon.

At this moment, these solutions seem quite ideal, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start making people aware of these issues and brainstorm potential fixes. The chaos in the forms of protests and anger probably is exactly what we need as a boost towards a change. After all, quoting Deepak Chopra, “all great changes are preceded by chaos”.

Until next time,


(M.A. Clinical Psychology, PGD Counselling)

Here’s a small video of a talk by Philip Zimbardo himself using his experiment to explain the study of evil.

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