Writing a Critical Essay on the Stanford Prison Experiment

On the morning of August 17th, 1971, a renowned psychologist by the name, Philip Zimbardo, launched an experiment, the Stanford Prison Experiment. Almost 50 years later, this experiment still ranks as one of the most controversial and highly criticized experiments in psychological history.

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Initially, Doctor Zimbardo meant for the experiment to reveal the behavioral nature of human beings and other influences when exposed to different social rules. The study ranks as a landmark psychological study of how people respond to captivity in particular, and the real-world circumstances of prison life.

This article aims to describe how Zimbardo conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment and what you can learn from it.

Stanford Prison Experiment

Nature of the Stanford Prison Experiment

For the experiment to assume a more natural setting, Zimbardo’s team chose subjects randomly and assigned them two different roles. That of “prisoner” and “guard.” Subjects who played the role of a guard were given sunglasses and sticks. Those who played the role of the prisoner were arrested, forced to wear chains and prison clothes, and transported to a makeshift jail. The ‘jail’ was the basement of the Stanford psychology department.

The experiment yielded several results that mark the cornerstone of most psychological studies today. Although the experiment intended to examine human captivity, its results demonstrated the obedience and impressionability of people when given a legitimizing ideology, institutional, and social support. The experiment also helps to illustrate cognitive dissonance theory and the effects of power and authority.

Stanford Prison Experiment Continues to Shock

In 1971, a group of students looking to make extra holiday money ended up in the basement of Stanford University. Little did they know this would end up being one of the most notorious experiments used in studying human psychology.

Basically, the concept of the experiment looked simple enough. Take a group of volunteers, select half of them to be prison wardens, and the other half, prisoners. Then place these volunteers in a makeshift jail and study what happens.

Initially, the experiment was to last two weeks but was cut short six days later. Most of the volunteers suffered mental breakdowns, with cases of sadism and strikes that followed.

Criticisms of the Stanford Prison Experiment in Modern Studies

The experiment is frequently cited as one of the leading examples of unethical research based on its overall outcome. It couldn’t be replicated even by today’s researchers simply because it doesn’t meet the standards set by numerous ethical codes. Even Zimbardo acknowledges that the experiment had several ethical problems.

Stanford Prison Experiment

Other critics of the study also suggest that it lacked generalizability. Several factors hindered the experiment from being as randomized as the psychologist intended. Take the unrepresentative sample of volunteers, for instance. It mostly included white, middle-class males. This made it difficult to apply the experiment’s results to a wider population.

In any critical essay, you’ll also realize the study is criticized for its lack of ecological validity. However much its researchers did their best to recreate a realistic prison setting; it isn’t simply possible to mimic a perfect prison environment. What with all the environmental and situational variables that prison life has.

Still, as with any critical essay, you realize that the Stanford Prison Experiment captured an almost complete prison life setting. Therefore, the study helps in understanding how different situations can influence human behavior.

Every student studying psychology at the university or campus must learn about Zimbardo’s experiment. You’ll also find several critical essay assignments on the study where you discuss the experiment in depth. Fortunately, you can now find essay writing services online to help you with your psychology assignments. Critical essay assignments about Zimbardo’s experiment can be very taxing. Thus, the reason for essay writing services like myhomeworkwriters.com.

My Homework Writers has a team of tried and tested professional writers waiting to get started on your homework. Visit myhomeworkwriters.com for your best chance at acing your finals and other critical essay topics.

What Went Wrong With the Experiment?

The Stanford prison experiment violated the ethical procedures set for experiments involving human beings. It didn’t have any form of ethical acceptability. In addition, the set APA standards required that such kinds of experiments, including those in charge of the experiment, be free from any sort of torture.

If the guards stuck to the recommended course of action throughout the experiment, it could have resulted in different outcomes that would have been more objective.

During the experiment, the researchers completely disregarded the subjects’ welfare, which was against APA’s guideline requirements. Moreover, the experiment’s planners didn’t consider the gravity of measures if any of their anticipated risks turned into reality.

In contrast, the APA guidelines required the experimenters to structure their experiments in such a manner that their risks weren’t too detrimental to the subjects’ emotional and physical wellbeing.

Another major critic of the Stanford prison experiment results was that its leader, doctor Zimbardo, analyzed its results. According to most accepted standards in modern research, it’s possible that the leader of the team might have flawed the experiment. Acting as an observer and possibly disturbing the process of the experiment deemed it invalid.

Doctor Zimbardo’s decision to analyze his own experiment violated the guideline that advocates for minimum disturbance. Therefore, Zimbardo’s personal feelings and opinions exposed the experiment to distortion, invalidating it.

The experiment’s validity remains questionable since, before its commencement, the psychologists already anticipated all the actions in the makeshift prison.

Also, there weren’t any admissible criteria that equated the experimental prison’s conditions to that of a real prison. It’s, therefore, possible that the experimental conditions in the study may have been much worse compared to those of an average, real-life prison.

What Did the Stanford Prison Experiment Prove?

The level of rebellion that prisoners developed during the experiment mark as one of the most recognizable results of the setup. As a result, the guards called for reinforcement and resorted to forceful encounters of their prisoners. Prison wardens took measures like the confinement of rebel prison leaders and intimidation of prisoners.

The level of psychological complications that resulted from the Stanford Prison Experiment included:

  • Acute emotional disturbance
  • Uncontrollable crying and rage
  • Disorganized thinking

Such psychological conditions became so severe that they led to the release of one prisoner two days into the experiment. Furthermore, some prisoners started developing and planning an escape. A review of the results of the experiment also showed some developed characteristics. For instance, the experiment revealed that the infused conditions caused significant inconsistent reactions on certain individuals.

The study also found that role acting created a sense of actual individual reactions, especially when circumstances pushed people to the extremes. The Stanford prison Experiment reiterates that changing an individual’s setup can induce changes in that individual’s behavior. Any critical essay that captures this study must include this point to grasp the whole point of the experiment.

The study recognized that even good people would adopt bad characters when placed in evil conditions.

Findings in the Study

Any critical essay outline of the Stanford Prison Experiment would reveal several significant findings of the study. Within a very short period, both prisoners and guards settled into their new roles as the study commenced.

Asserting Authority

Within hours of starting the experiment, some guards started harassing prisoners. For instance, the guards woke prisoners at 2:30 A.M. by blasting whistles and banking prison bars. This was just the first of many counts that would later occur within the course of the experiment.

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These counts served as an effective way of familiarizing prisoners with their numbers and new environment. What’s more, they enabled the guards to assert more control over the prisoners.

Within a few hours of starting the experiment, the prisoners started adopting prison-like behaviors too. They started talking about prison issues in most of their conversations. Prisoners started taking prison rules more seriously. It looked as if the prisoners knew the rules were there for their benefit. Also, any infringement on any prison rules would spell disaster for the whole group. At some point, some prisoners even began siding with the prison wardens against prisoners who didn’t obey the laid-out rules.

Physical Punishment

The prison wardens taunted prisoners with insults and petty orders and boring tasks meant to dehumanize them.

Pointless punishments like push-ups ranked as the leading form of physical punishment used by the guards. Sometimes, these punishments became so brutal to the point that one guard stepped on a prisoner while doing push-ups.

Asserting Independence

It’s possible that the guards didn’t expect a rebellion to occur in the makeshift prison. After all, the first day passed without any incident. No one could have anticipated that a rebellion would take place the very next morning.

The prisoners ripped off their numbers, removed their stocking caps, and barricaded themselves inside their cells using their beds. The prison guards had to call in reinforcements upon which three stand-by guards came in to assist. Even the night shift guards remained on duty voluntarily.

Putting Down the Rebellion

If you see the Stanford prison experiment movie, you can see the guards retaliating by using a fire extinguisher to force prisoners away from the doors. The fire extinguisher shot a stream of chilling carbon dioxide forcing the prisoners away from their cell doors. This allowed the guards to pry the cell doors open, strip the prisoners naked before finally taking their beds out.

Consequently, the ringleaders of the rebellion ended up in solitary confinement. Only after this failed rebellion did the guards start to intimidate and harass the prisoners.

Consequences of the Rebellion

The next few days into the experiment yielded even more unanticipated results. For one, Stanford prison experiment ethics revealed that the relationship between prisoners and guards changed. Remember, the prison guards established firm control over the prisoners who remained completely dependent on them.

As more days went by, the prisoners became even more dependent on the guards. The prison wardens held the prisoners in contempt, and they wanted the prisoners to know it. Similarly, the prisoners became even more submissive to the guards’ orders and authority.

The guards demanded even more respect and greater obedience from the prisoners by becoming more assertive and aggressive.  Not only were the prisoners submissive to the guards, but they also depended on them for everything from food to water to certain privileges. Thus, forcing the prisoners to try to find ways of pleasing the guards like telling on fellow prisoners

The Catholic Priest

During the experiment, Doctor Zimbardo invited a catholic priest to act as the prison’s chaplain and evaluate how realistic the prison situation was. During the prisoners’ meetings with the priest, half of them identified themselves using their prisoner number rather than their names.

The priest interviewed each prisoner independently and even advised them that the only way they could get out was if they had a lawyer to represent them.

An End to the Experiment

As aforementioned, the experiment, which was intended to run for two weeks, had to be terminated just six days after it began. This was as a result of most of the Stanford prison experiment participants suffering emotional breakdowns while others exhibited excessive aggression, the guards.

Many critical essay examples we have today revealed that Christina Maslach went in to conduct interviews with the experiment’s participants. After seeing the state of the participants, she felt extremely outraged and strongly objected, especially at how the guards abused the prisoners.

Doctor Zimbardo would later reveal that out of the 50 or more officers who investigated the makeshift prison, Christina Maslach was the only one who questioned its morality.

In a later interview, even Zimbardo admitted to thinking more like a superintendent of the prison rather than a research psychologist.

Conclusion of the Experiment

Doctor Zimbardo’s experiment revealed how people would readily conform to different social roles they’re expected to play, especially when the roles are as stereotypes as those prison guards.

According to Zimbardo, the ‘prison’ environment was a critical factor in recreating the guard’s brutal behavior. A study in the guards showed that none of them showed any sadistic tendencies before the study.

Zimbardo’s findings, therefore, support the situational explanation behavior that people have rather than the dispositional one.

Several critical essay examples of the experiment revealed three stereotypes found in prison guards.

  • Some were good
  • Others were tough but fair
  • Some were outright cruel

At the end of the experiment, most of the guards couldn’t believe the brutalizing ways that they behaved. Most confessed they didn’t even know that side of them existed until after the experiment. The same situation happened with the prisoners in the experiment. The prisoners quickly learned that whatever they did had very little effect on their stay in prison. The unpredictable decision of the guards forced the prisoners to stop responding altogether.

Critical Evaluation of the Stanford Prison Experiment

It’s possible that demand characteristics played a significant role in the findings of the study. Since the prisoners and guards were playing a role, their behaviors might not have been influenced by similar factors as those of a real-life prison.

The study’s findings couldn’t, therefore, reasonably generalize real-life experience, such as that of a prison setting. The study had low ecological validity. In contrast, it’s also possible that the participants acted to the situation and prison setting as though it was real. For instance, most of the prisoners talked about prison conditions in most of their private conversations, with only a small percentage being about life outside of prison.

Another situation that the study overlooked was the lack of population validity. The chosen sample comprised of only US make students. Therefore, it couldn’t apply to female prisons or prisoners in other counties.

The harmful treatment of the participants in the study led to the formal recognition of ethical guidelines and laws by the American Psychological Association. After the study, all recurrent studies must undergo an extensive review by the institutional review board before implementation. Had Zimbardo conducted the study after these laws, critical essays could have been talking about a Stanford prison experiment lawsuit.

These governing boards may request researchers to make changes to their experiment’s designs or, in extreme cases, deny their approvals altogether.

Ethical Issues with the Experiment

Over the years, the study has received several ethical criticisms about how it was conducted. For instance, the lack of fully informed consent by the participants as nobody knew what would happen in the experiment.

Also, the prisoners didn’t consent to the way the arrests took place. This breached the ethics of Doctor Zimbardo’s own contract with the participants.

The experiment also didn’t protect the ‘prisoners’ from psychological harm. Prisoners suffered several incidences of distress and humiliation from the guards.


The Stanford prison experiment produces substantial evidence that proved the existence of human beings’ cognitive dissonance. Although the experiment’s methods breached major guidelines on experimentation, its results contain vital details that objectively point to people’s natural tendencies to take on challenging options. Visit My Homework Writers for a more detailed guide on how to write a critical essay on a short story and get the best original copy of the Stanford prison experiment.

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