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What was the aim of Zimbardo’s laboratory experiment? (1973)

To investigate how readily people would conform to the roles of guard and prisoner in a role-playing exercise that simulated prison life


Why did zimbardo construct a mock prison?

-Following reports of brutality by prison guards in prisons across America in 1960s, zimbardo and his colleagues set up a mock prison in the basement of the psychology department at Stanford university
- they wanted to test whether brutality was the result of sadistic personalities (dispositional) or whether the behaviour was created by the situation (situational)


What sampling method did zimbardo use?

Volunteer sample- He advertised asking for volunteers to participate in a study of the psychological effects of prison life
- More than 70 applicants answered the ad and were given diagnostic interviews and personality tests to eliminate candidates with psychological problems, medical disabilities, or a history of crime or drug abuse


Explain the procedure of Zimbardo’s (1973) SPE?

- study compromised of 24 male university students (out of 75 volunteer respondents)
who were paid $15 a day to take part in the experiment
- students randomly allocated to role of guards or prisoners
- to heighten the ‘realism’ of the study, the ‘prisoners’ were arrested in their own homes and then transported to the ‘prison’
- once they arrived at the ‘prison’ they were blindfolded, strip-searched, and issued a uniform and number


Explain how the social roles of the prisoners and guards were strictly divided

- prisoners’ daily routines heavily regulated- there were 16 rules they had to follow, which were enforced by guards who worked in shifts, three at a time
- the prisoners’ names were never used, only their number cresting deindividuation
- guards had their own uniform complete with a wooden club, handcuffs, keys and mirror shades also creating deindividuation (make eye contact with prisoners impossible)
- guards were told they had complete power over the prisoners, for instance deciding when they went to the toilet


What are some extra details to zimbardo’s (1973) SPE?

- no physical violence from guards was permitted
- Zimbardo had dual roles: lead researcher and superintendent of the prison
- was meant to last 14 days


What were the findings of Zimbardo’s (1973) SPE?

- prisoners rebelled within 2 days but the guards ‘crushed’ the rebellion
- study was terminated after 6 days due to health of prisoners at the hands of the guards
- guards, prisoners and researchers had conformed to their social roles


Explain how the prisoners rebelled within the first two days but the guards ‘crushed’ the rebellion

- within 2 days the prisoners rebelled against the guards
- they ripped their uniforms, shouted and swore at the guards,who retaliated with fire extinguishers
- the guards employed ‘divide-and-rule’ tactic by playing the prisoners off against each other
- they harassed the prisoners constantly by conducting frequent headcounts often in the middle night when the prisoners would stand in a line and call their numbers
- guards highlighted differences in social roles by creating opportunities to enforce the rules of punishing slight misdemeanours


Explain how the study was terminated after 6 days due to health of prisoners at the hands of the guards

- guards took up their social roles with enthusiasm- the behaviour became a threat to the prisoners’ psychological and physical health for example:
- after rebellion was put down, prisoners became subdued, anxious and depressed
- one prisoner was released on the first day because he showed signs of psychological disturbance
- one prisoner went on hunger strike and the guards attempted to force-feed him and punished him in the ‘hole’ ( a dark, tiny closet)
- study terminated by 6th day instead of proposed 14th day


Explain how guards, prisoners and researchers had conformed to their social roles

- stimulation revealed the power of the situation to influence people’s behaviour- guards, prisoners and researchers all conformed to their social roles within the prison
- the more the guards identified with their roles, the more brutal and aggressive their behaviour became


What are the evaluation points for Zimbardo’s (1973) SPE?

✅ control over variables
❌ demand characteristics and lack of realism
❌ Zimbardo underestimated the role of dispositional influences
❌ been contradicted by subsequent research (‘The Experiment’)
❌ ethical issues


Explain how a strength of Zimbardo’s SPE is control over variables?

- one strength of SPE is that zimbardo and his colleagues had some control over the variables
- the most obvious example of this was the selection of participants: emotionally stable individuals were chosen (24/75) and randomly assigned to the roles of prison guard or prisoner
- this was one way the researchers tried to rule out individual personality differences as an explanation for the findings- if guards and prisoners behaved very differently but were in those roles only by chance, then their behaviour must be due to the pressure of the situation
- having such control over the variables is a significant strength as it increases the internal validity of the study. Therefore, we can be more confident in drawing conclusions about the influences of roles on behaviour


Explain how lack of realism is a potential problem with Zimbardo’s (1973) SPE

- demand characteristics could explain the findings of the study as the guards and prisoners could have been simply acting based on the stereotypes of how prisoners and guards are supposed to behave
- for example, one guard claimed he based his role on a brutal character from the film ‘Cool Hand Luke’; this would also explain why the prisoners rioted, because they thought that is what real prisoners did

- HOWEVER, zimbardo pointed to evidence that the situation was very real to the participants as quantitative data showed that 90% of the prisoners’ conversations during the simulation were about prison life showing they became fully immersed in the prison environment = shows high internal validity as simulation seemed very real to participants


Explain how a limitation of Zimbardo’s (1973) SPE is that Fromm arugued that Zimbardo underestimated the role of dispositional influences

- not every single guard (only around 1/3) behaved in a brutal manner
- other guards were keen on applying the rules fairly
- the rest actively tried to support the prisoners sympathising with them offering them cigarettes and reinstating privileges
- this suggests that Zimbardo’s conclusion that participants conformed to social roles may be over-stated; this also brings into question whether Zimbardo has exaggerated the power of the situation to influence behaviour
- the differences in guards’ behaviour indicate that they were able to exercise right and wrong choices, despite the situational pressures to conform to a role


Explain how a limitation of Zimbardo’s (1973) SPE is contradictory research

- the SPE was partially recreated in a study called ‘The Experiment’ which was broadcast on the BBC
- the findings were very different to those of Zimbardo and his colleagues
- for example, in their study it was eventually the prisoners who took control of the mock-prison and subjected the guards to harassment and disobedience
- researchers used social identity theory (SIT) to explain this outcome- they argued that the guards failed to develop a shared social identity as a cohesive group, but the prisoners did and refused to accept the limits of their assigned roles as prisoners
- this suggests that brutal behaviour from the prison guards in the SPE may have been as the result of a shared social identity as opposed to conformity from their social roles


Explain how ethical issues are a limitation of Zimbardo’s (1973) SPE

- major ethical issues with SPE
- one issue arose because of Zimbardo’s dual roles in the study: lead researcher and superintendent of the prison
- on one occasion, a student who desperately wanted to leave the study spoke to zimbardo in his role as superintendent
- Zimbardo responded to the student as a superintendent worried about the running of the prison rather than a researcher with responsibilities towards his participants
- this significantly limited Zimbardo’s ability to protect his participants from harm because his superintendent role conflicted with his researcher role


What are social roles?

The ‘parts’ people play as members of various social groups e.g. parent, child, student, passenger etc- these are accompanied by expectations we and others have of what is appropriate behaviour in each role e.g. caring parent