Professor of Landmark Stanford Prison Study Talks to UWF Students

Pensacola – Dr. Phillip Zimbardo simulated a prison in the basement of the Stanford University’s Psychology Department in 1971 using 24 students with no prior criminal records, medical conditions or psychological disorders to play the roles of prisoners and guards.

It was to be a two-week study, but Zimbardo stopped it after only six days when the simulation became all too real, as he witnessed both sadistic behaviors from the guards and emotional breakdowns from the prisoners.

“I had no idea it would get so extreme, so quick,” said Zimbardo, a renowned psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University.

Zimbardo spoke to UWF students via Skype Wednesday after a screening of a 2015 film about his landmark study “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” The event was sponsored by the UWF Department of Psychology.

The Stanford Prison study was a follow-up to research done in the 1960s by psychologist Stanley Milgram, who Zimbardo said was “really the first to do demonstrative research to illustrate how situational forces could get good people to do bad things.”

“I wanted to have a situation where people lived 24/7 in that environment,” Zimbardo said of the Stanford Prison Experiment. “Because then we could see changes in personalities, changes in how they adapted to the role, hour by hour, day by day.”

Deciding which students would play the role of prisoners and guards was only decided by the flip of a coin. To add more realism to Zimbardo’s experiment, he had the Palo Alto Police Department simulate the arrest of each of the students who were the prisoners.

After an uneventful first day at the makeshift prison, things quickly broke down on the second day, as prisoners rebelled and barricaded themselves in their cells, in protest of unfair treatment by the guards.

The guards, who rotated in teams of three during eight-hour shifts, called in reinforcements and broke down the doors, punishing the prisoners, stripping them naked and humiliating them, Zimbardo said. The intimidation and humiliation of the prisoners would continue in the proceeding days.

Within 36 hours, the first prisoner had an emotional breakdown and asked to leave the study.

“He became a model of one way to get out of this terrible situation, and every day after that another prisoner had similar extreme, emotional distress,” Zimbardo said. “And then I ended the study after the fifth day.”

Zimbardo, also a prolific author, wrote extensively about The Stanford Prison Experiment in his book “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.”

“No guard ever stopped a fellow guard from doing these sadistic things,” Zimbardo said. “No prisoner, when one of their cellmates was beginning to have an emotional breakdown, ever gave them any comfort. And I as a superintendent allowed this to happen. So we were able to say this is a time of moral re-education, namely that to understand the power of a situation like this can have a negative influence, over any of us, and all of us.”

Dr. Jane Halonen, a professor in the Department of Psychology at UWF, said she has known Zimbardo for a long time and talked about the importance of his contributions to the field of psychology. She worked together with him on his public television series called “Discovering Psychology,” which she said in her opinion made him one of the world’s most famous psychologists.

Zimbardo said he ultimately does not want to be remembered for the Stanford Prison Experiment, but instead for his research into why people are shy and his work on the psychology of time perspectives.

More recently, he’s focused on his endeavor the Heroic Imagination Project. The nonprofit organization “develops and implements research, education, corporate and public initiatives to inspire and encourage everyday heroism,” according to the mission statement on its website.

“Ultimately, I think I want to be remembered as the guy who inspired ordinary people to become everyday heroes,” Zimbardo said.