Stanford prison experiment

Stanford prison experiment

Stanford prison experiment
Lucifer effect

The Stanford prison experiment (also called the Lucifer effect) is a controversial social psychology study on the effects of prison carried out in 1971 by psychologist Philip Zimbardo at the request of the US Navy and the US Marine Corps.

The experience

Students (18 in number) are paid to play the role of prisoners or guards in a prison setting. Students first take psychological tests and are chosen for their mental stability, but roles are drawn at random. The guards are then left free to manage the prison with the sole order not to physically harm the prisoners. They are observed for 2 weeks.

The goal

Show that it is the situation rather than the authoritarian personality that can be the cause of actions contrary to the values ​​of the participants.


Without trying to say too much, the experience did not go very well. Some guards became particularly sadistic (one was named John Wayne) and the prisoners had a rough time (prisoner 416 started a hunger strike to protest). Only one person (Christina Maslach) stands up against the injustices and has the tests stopped faster than expected (after 6 days).

Problems and bias

Zimbardo gives directives to the guards, contrary to what is initially planned and this influences their actions. In addition, there is no real scientific basis for the study (no neutrality since the observer is the creator of the study, no reproducibility possible due to a serious ethical problem, different conditions real prisons of the time (Zimbardo asked the prisoners to call themselves only by numbers to dehumanize them a little more) etc ...). All of this goes to this experience of being repeatedly questioned and not being able to really be reproduced.

However, this case, like the Milgram experience, has fueled popular culture enormously and several films/books transcribe the experience more or less well (roles not really drawn at random, not always students ...). We invite you to discover the first film which retraces this story: Das Experiment (2001). This one, takes a lot of real elements from the experience and pushes the script a little further to demonstrate what could have happened.

Even if the experience has several biases, it remains interesting and shows that humans can act cruelly when given the right to do so.

Written by Maxou (04/21/2020)
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