In what was definitely one of the highlights of the 119th Annual APA Convention held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. in 2011 , the room was packed for a symposium titled Stanford Prison Experiment- Enduring Lessons 40 Years Later. Chaired by eminent social psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo of Stanford University, the panel of speakers also featured Christina Maslach of the University of Berkeley, Craig Haney of the University of California at Santa Cruz, and Scott Plous of Wesleyan University. Opening the symposium, Dr. Zimbardo provided an overview of the classic Stanford Prison Experiment which began on August 17, 1971 and ended an eventful six days later. Presenting shots of the classic slide show based on the experiment (which I vividly recalled from my own undergraduate days) as well as the famous video Quiet Rage, Dr. Zimbardo provided commentary of his experiences in planning and running the experiment.
Beginning with a newspaper ad for university students to participate in a study on social roles, the students were recruited for what they were told would be a mock simulation of a prison to be conducted in the basement of one of the buildings on Stanford's campus. Of the 70 applicants who initially applied, an intense battery of psychological testing winnowed the number down to 24 recruits who were then randomly assigned to be either guards or prisoners in the study. Whatever those students who were chosen to be prisoners thought would happen, they certainly never expected to be taken directly from their homes in a police car that simulated the experience of being arrested, strip-searched, and processed at the police station with unnerving detail. Over the course of the next six days, the mock prison descended into what Dr. Zimbardo would later describe as a "Pirandellian experience", in which the experiment, originally intended as a demonstration of the role that situational factors play in behaviour, had crossed the boundary between illusion and reality. Despite abusive behaviour by guards, emotional distress on the part of inmates, and even an actual hunger strike, Dr. Zimbardo (who played the role of the prison warden) continued the experiment. Only the intervention of his then-girlfriend (and later wife) Christina Maslach convinced him that the experiment had gone too far. While the experiment had initially been planned to run for two weeks, they ended it after six days and the Stanford Prison Experiment became part of history.
In describing how running the experiment shaped his subsequent career, Dr. Zimbardo also discussed his later work in social roles, his more recent book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, and the deja-vu surrounding later prison scandals such as at Abu-Ghraib which reflect many of the lessons learned from that long-ago experiment. He also discussed his more recent work on social roles, including questions surrounding heroism, everyday acts of courage, and , more recently, what he terms the "time paradox effect".
The next speaker was Dr. Craig Haney who described his own experiences with the experiment (he was one of the research assistants who had presided over the running of the mock prison) and how it influenced his later work with prisoners. He rendered down his own experiences with the prison experiment into three basic lessons: 1. Context matters, 2. Prisoners are people, and 3. Mistreatment has consequences. To demonstrate the vital relevance of these three points in modern prisons, he provided a gripping presentation describing the massive rise in U.S. incarceration in the years following the Stanford Prison Experiment.
While relatively stable during the decades prior to 1980, the number of prisoners suddenly soared enormously over the past 20 years. With an estimated two million Americans currently incarcerated and an additional five million involved in the criminal justice system (whether on remand, parole, or probation), the prison system has become overwhelmed by the surge of convictions. Along with a prison system swamped with double and triple-bunked inmates, there is also the role that deinstitutionalization has played. As psychiatric hospitals closed and community placement programs designed to handle released mentally ill patients failed to materialize, where else could they go but into the prison system? With prisons increasingly unable to handle mentally ill prisoners, use of solitary confinement represents the only real option (and not just in the U.S. prison system as I can personally attest from my own experience working in Canadian prisons).
Despite repeated court decisions condemning barbaric treatment in U.S. prisons (many of which were overturned on appeal), worsening prison conditions are typically dealt with through increased security, i.e., more guards with guns to protect the prison staff while inmate suicide and homicide worsen dramatically. With the highest incarceration rate in the world, the U.S. prison system seems unable to reverse the grim situation in which it has found itself. Whatever lessons have been learned from the Stanford Prison Experiment seem to have been largely forgetten.
Those of us who attended the symposium also heard from Christina Maslach as she talked about her experience as a relative outsider looked at the Stanford Prison Experiment and how it inspired her own research into staff burnout. Finally, we heard from Scott Plous who acts as the archivist for the popular site prisonexp.org as well as the Social Psychology Network and understandingprejudice.org. Through the use of social networking and these popular websites, the vital lessons of the Stanford Prison Experiment have been made available to generations of students and educators.