In detail

The Zimbardo prison experiment and the loss of identity

The Zimbardo prison experiment and the loss of identity

Have you ever wondered how it is possible that a seemingly peaceful person can act differently and exercise cruelty when the context incites him? 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 harming 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 issue repeatedly. One of the most controversial and controversial experiments that have investigated this extreme behavior is the experiment of Zimbardo Prison. Today, from Psychoactive, we explain what happened during the investigation.


  • 1 What was the Zimbardo prison experiment about?
  • 2 What happened in the Zimbardo prison experiment?
  • 3 The end of the experiment
  • 4 After Zimbardo

What was the Zimbardo prison experiment about?

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

To carry out the investigation, Zimbardo recruited twenty-four volunteer participants, white and middle class men with no criminal record and whose tests indicated psychological and emotional stability. These participants were assigned a randomly determined role: "Prisoners" Y "Guards", however, they were not informed that this selection was decided at random. The action would take place in the basements of the Stanford Psychology faculty that would stage a prison and Zimbardo assigned himself the role of prison superintendent.

The investigation was funded by the US Navy to find the causes of the 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 was launched. Zimbardo tried to induce the disorientation Y lack of individuality of the volunteers. The twelve men who represented the role of guards were explained that they could not carry out physical harm to the “prisoners” but could try to strip them of their individuality.

Zimbardo thus informed the guards: “You can create feelings of frustration in prisoners, a sense of fear to some extent, a notion of arbitrariness in which their lives are totally controlled by us and by the system and in which they have no privacy. We will strip them of their individuality in different ways. In general, all this leads to a feeling of lack of power. In this situation, we will have all the power and they will not have any”.

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

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

The roles were quickly adopted, especially that of the guards. After a day without many setbacks, soon some guards began to besiege the prisoners and exercise control. The prisoners also took the rules very seriously and even positioned themselves on the side of the guards when other prisoners did not obey.

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

Soon the prisoners rebelled and began to entrench themselves in their cells. The guards demanded reinforcements and alleviated the mutiny 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 entrenched, the guards had full 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 people. The cycle continued like this: the more submissive the prisoners were, the more demanding and aggressive the guards became.

So the prisoners began to present Emotional problems, such as crying and lack of concentration, some of them were replaced because they suffered trauma and a prisoner came to suffer psychosomatic problems in the form of rashes, just 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, realized the abuses that the guards were committing and reported the immorality of the procedure. Zimbardo terminated the investigation after six days instead of 15 as 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 they reached.

Zimbardo's experiment was a controversial example of how the pressure from contexts that incite extremism can lead to loss of people's individuality, as well as personal responsibility. The feeling of group membership With certain rules imposed it can cause cruel and sadistic behaviors to be generated without internal moral approaches. Or, in the case of prisoners, by being 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 lead to a positive consequence or modify an 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, they 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 are many critics that Zimbardo has received. Some of these criticisms 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" by order 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 based on 90% of the problems. of the "jail", the guards came to pay overtime for free to help the operation of the prison and some prisoners came to ask for the help of a lawyer to leave, trying to obtain probation in exchange for their pay.

The ethical criticisms that the study has received for the violent reactions of the “guards” and the emotional damage suffered by the “prisoners”, as well as the questioning of their validity due to ecological causes of the investigation, make this experiment something very controversial and debated over the following decades. Zimbardo, on the other hand, alleges that they intended to obtain benefits on how to convert prisons into something more human, 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 behaviors, makes the individual can 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 contradict each other. A concept that has been widely studied and that should pay attention to not allow these behaviors continue to arise again and again promoted by institutional interests.

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