Philip George Zimbardo, a psychologist and Professor Emeritus at Stanford University conducted a
unique experiment in 1971 called ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’ to understand how our roles in real life affect our thoughts.
He picked 24 male students to participate in a psychological study of prison life. The experiment was conducted in a makeshift prison located in the basement of Stanford Psychology Department and each participant was paid $15 per day. Half of them were randomly assigned the role of ‘prisoners’ and the remaining half were to act as ‘prison guards’. The experimenter tried to expose the participants to real- life conditions of prisoners, including fake arrest at the participant’s home.
Initially the prisoners did not take the guards seriously. Soon the guards began to impose their authority. They blew whistles to force the prisoners to wake up at 2.30 in the morning. When the prisoners refused to obey, the guards used power against them. The next day, the prisoners rebelled. They ripped their uniform and locked themselves in the prison which the guards forcibly opened, stripped the inmates naked, tore apart the beds and put the rebels in solitary confinement, pushups and public humiliation. They separated the ‘good’ prisoners who did not rebel and rewarded them by giving them permission to lie in bed, wash themselves, brush their teeth and eat, while those who had started the riot were not allowed to do so.
Within a few days, the students who were merely ‘acting ‘as guards, began to behave like real prison guards and became sadistic. The students playing the role of prisoners became extremely stressed and developed symptoms of acute depression. The experiment was originally planned for two weeks but had to be called off within six days due to its extreme effect on the participants.
Source: “Mastering Essay & Answer Writing for UPSC Civil Services IAS/ IPS & State PSC Main Exam” by Dr Awdhesh Singh, available at