The Zimbardo Prison Experiment and Loss of Identity

Simon Doyle
The Zimbardo Prison Experiment and Loss of Identity

Have you ever wondered how it is possible that an apparently peaceful person can act differently and exercise cruelty when the context prompts him to do so? Social disasters such as wars full of horror and violence have historically highlighted the lack of ethical limits that human beings can reach. Some people who do not seem capable of doing harm in their normal context have become beings far from morality when the environment pushes them to do so and psychologists have tried to investigate this question repeatedly. One of the most controversial and controversial experiments that have investigated this extreme behavior is the Zimbardo Prison experiment. Today, from Psicoactiva, we explain what happened during the investigation.


  • What was the Zimbardo Prison Experiment about?
  • What Happened in the Zimbardo Prison Experiment?
  • The end of the experiment
  • After Zimbardo
    • Links of interest

What was the Zimbardo Prison Experiment about?

In 1971, researcher Philip Zimbardo, professor of psychology at Stanford University, carried out a controversial social investigation in which he intended to investigate the psychological effect exerted by the perception of power and the influence of the role granted by the context, when in this messages charged with extremism are transmitted. In this experiment, Zimbardo drew on the relationships and problems between prisoners and prison officers and how each role encouraged people to behave in a certain way regardless of their individual character..

To carry out the research, Zimbardo recruited twenty-four volunteer participants, white and middle-class men with no criminal records and whose tests indicated psychological and emotional stability. These participants were assigned a randomly determined role: "prisoners" and "guards", however they were not informed that this selection was decided at random. The action would take place in the basements of the Stanford School of Psychology, which would act as the setting for a prison and Zimbardo assigned himself the role of superintendent of the prison..

The research was funded by the US Navy to find the causes of conflicts in the prisons of the Marine Corps and the participants were explained that they would simulate the action in a prison and that the experiment would last two weeks. However, six days later, the experiment had to be abandoned..

What Happened in the Zimbardo Prison Experiment?

After explaining the instructions to the participants, the experiment started. Zimbardo tried to induce disorientation and lack of individuality in the volunteers. The twelve men who played the role of guards were explained that they could not carry out physical harm to the "prisoners" but they could try to strip them of their individuality..

Zimbardo informed the guards thus: “You can create in the prisoners feelings of frustration, a feeling of fear to some degree, a notion of arbitrariness in which their lives are totally controlled by us and by the system and in which they are not. they have privacy. We are going to strip them of their individuality in different ways. In general, all of this leads to a sense of powerlessness. In this situation, we will have all the power and they will have none ".

The "guards" were provided with clothing similar to that worn by prison guards, as well as sunglasses to prevent eye contact with prisoners. These, in turn, were arrested from their homes and confined three at a time in small cells, stripping and delousing them first and taking all their belongings from them before being given a uniform without underwear with the identification number by which now would be named.

Thus, the guards took turns and were allowed to do what was necessary to uphold the law without using physical violence..

The roles were quickly adopted, especially that of the guards. After an uneventful day, soon some guards began to lay siege to the prisoners and to exert control. The prisoners also took the rules very seriously and even sided with the guards when other prisoners did not obey..

Little by little the prisoners were being dehumanized after the harassment of the guards, from insults to physical punishment, one of the guards even stepped on the back of the prisoners while they did push-ups.

Soon the prisoners rebelled and began to barricade themselves in their cells. The guards called for reinforcements and alleviated the riot with the use of fire extinguishers. The precursors of the rebellion were isolated, while those less involved had privileges such as brushing their teeth. After a few days the relationship was fully established, the guards had total control and showed it with contempt to the prisoners, who felt totally dehumanized and dependent on them, trying to please them by giving information about other prisoners and becoming totally submissive. . The cycle continued like this: the more submissive the prisoners were, the more demanding and aggressive the guards became..

Thus, the prisoners began to present emotional problems, such as crying and lack of concentration, some of them were replaced because they suffered trauma and one prisoner came to suffer psychosomatic problems in the form of rashes, as well as another went on a hunger strike.

The end of the experiment

When Christina Maslach, a doctor from the same University, went to interview the participants, she realized the abuses that the guards were committing and reported the immorality of the procedure. Zimbardo ended the investigation after six days instead of 15 as they had planned. Zimbardo himself admitted in 2008 that he himself felt so involved in the role of superintendent that he was not being aware of the limits to which they were reaching.

The Zimbardo experiment was a controversial example of how the pressure of contexts that incite extremism can lead to the loss of individuality as well as personal responsibility. The feeling of belonging to a group with certain imposed rules can cause cruel and sadistic behaviors to be generated without internal moral approaches. Or, in the case of prisoners, when stripped of their humanity, they could experience feelings of learned helplessness, a blocking psychological state in which after negative experiences the subjects learn that none of their responses will bring about a positive consequence or modify a unwanted environment, falling into a state of passivity and frustration.

After Zimbardo

After suspending the experiment and returning to real life, some of the participants who had acted as guards were surprised at the behaviors they had carried out. The prisoners in turn, who many felt assertive in their normal life, also could not understand how they had adapted to such submission during the experiment..

Currently, some scientists question the methodology and findings of this research and there is much criticism that Zimbardo has received. Some of these critics allege that the experiment was not truly scientific and that it could even have been a possible fraud claiming that the participants acted in such a way to "help the study" on the orders of Zimbardo. That is why the findings of this research cannot be generalized in real life, although there is evidence that the participants experienced the situation as if it were real, due to the monitoring of the experiment: private conversations were 90% based on problems from the “jail”, the guards came to pay overtime for free to help run the prison and some prisoners even asked for the help of a lawyer to get out, trying to get parole in exchange for their pay.

The ethical criticism that the study has received due to the violent reactions of the "guards" and the emotional damage suffered by the "prisoners", as well as the questioning of its validity for ecological reasons of the research, make this experiment something very controversial and debated over the next several decades. Zimbardo, for his part, alleges that by doing so they intended to obtain benefits on how to make prisons something more humane, as well as affirming that the negative effects were not lasting..

Beyond the controversy, the study has given much to talk about how institutionalized cruelty and the environment that induces extremism and legitimizes immoral behavior, makes the individual lose their own values ​​and embrace dehumanized behavior. Psychologists have found in this study a clear example of the concept of social attribution, a concept that shows how the feeling of belonging or identity towards a group influences the behavior of individuals, leading them to a state of cognitive dissonance or disharmony between ideas that are they contradict. A concept that has been widely studied and to which attention should be paid so as not to allow these behaviors to continue to emerge over and over again promoted by institutional interests.

Links of interest


Yet No Comments