What are the interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison? The psychological effects of a simulated prison are an interesting area of study and one that was explored in a highly controversial psychological experiment known as the Stanford Prison Experiment.
In 1971, Professor Philip Zimbardo came up with the idea of studying the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. The experiment involved a simulated prison environment and recruitment of seventy-five participants from the student body of Stanford University. Each subject was arbitrarily assigned a role as a prisoner or prison guard and then observed as they adapted to their roles within the makeshift prison.
What are the interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison?
The results of Zimbardo’s experiment were rather surprising. As the simulated prison environment became more real to the subjects of the experiment, reactions became increasingly intense. By the end of the second day, many of the subjects had begun to show pathological signs of extreme coping mechanisms as they adapted to their assigned roles.
The subjects acting as prison officers soon began to use authoritarian measures in an attempt to control their prisoners. Some used physical and emotional abuse to degrade the prisoners and although Zimbardo was supposed to be overseeing the experiment as the leading psychologist, he became so absorbed in his own role as prison superintendent that he turned a blind eye to many of the abuses taking place in the simulated prison.
Observation of the students who were assigned the role of prison guards soon became a fascinating illustration of the pathology of power. Being given control over the lives of others proved to be highly exhilarating to many of the guards and even after the experiment was terminated, several of them were reluctant to discontinue their roles.
As the experiment progressed, levels of aggression displayed by the guards rapidly began to spiral out of control and the most aggressive guards very quickly assumed leadership roles within their shift patterns. Zimbardo noted at the end of the experiment that about one third of the prison guard contingent had displayed genuine sadistic tendencies.
In contrast to those students who had been assigned the role of prison guard, the prisoners were equally affected by the loss of personal identity and arbitrary control of their behaviour within the simulated prison, an effect known as “pathological prisoner syndrome”.
To begin with, the prisoners tried to rebel against their loss of personal freedom and the atmosphere of oppression, but when this failed, various coping mechanisms were employed and they began to show signs of increasingly helpless behaviour, depression and dependency, and passively accepted whatever abuses the guards were dishing out. Several prisoners also began to exhibit signs of emotional disturbance.
As time passed, various self-interests emerged and some prisoners even inflicted punishment on their fellow prisoners when asked to by the guards. All of the prisoners became so immersed in their role of prisoner that by the time the experiment was terminated early, they had started to believe that the hostility directed at them was justified.
At the end of the experiment, Zimbardo concluded that new dimensions in the social psychology of imprisonment had been revealed and further research was essential in order to find alternatives to existing penal regimes.