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10 Things We Can Learn About Conformity From The Stanford Prison Experiment

You know you've conducted a controversial psychology experiment when a feature film is made about it and your results are compared to the events at Abu Ghraib Prison.

In 1971, Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo shocked the world when news leaked of a highly controversial experiment that pitted students against students in mock prison cells set up in the basement of the Stanford psychology building.

Zimbardo's aim was to discover what had the greatest impact on prison inmates: the behavior of prison guards or the prison environment itself. He selected 24 male students to participate, randomly assigning half of them as prison guards and half as prisoners.

The student prisoners were run through similar scenarios as real criminals: they were arrested at home, taken to a police station, photographed and fingerprinted, blindfolded, and "imprisoned" in one of the basement cells.

On arrival at the fake prison, the student prisoners were stripped nude, given prison uniforms, and all of their possessions were taken. They no longer had names - they were referred to by the guards by assigned numbers.

The student guards donned officer uniforms and carried billy clubs and whistles. They also wore dark sunglasses so as to avoid eye contact with the student prisoners.

Predictably, the situation rapidly escalated into mayhem, with the student guards strongly embodying authoritative personalities and the student prisoners losing their sense of independence, identity, and sense of control over the situation. Student prisoners were humiliated, forced to do menial tasks, were chained, and some were placed in solitary confinement. By the end of the experiment, some prisoners had mental breakdowns. What was to be a two-week experiment ceased after six days.

Here is what Zimbardo and his colleagues learned.

    1. One may identify as authoritarian when given a position of power and authority with no oversight.

    2. One may abuse authority when given a position of power and authority with no oversight.

    3. When one is dehumanized there is a greater likelihood that one will be abused.

    4. The more dependent one person or group is on another, the more likely the person or group will become submissive.

    5. When one becomes highly invested in the norms of a group, one may lose much of one's sense of personal identity.

    6. When one becomes highly invested in the norms of a group, one may lose much of one's sense of personal responsibility.

    7. One may act against the interest of others, even when it goes against one's personal ethics when one feels threatened.

    8. One's environment may have a strong influence on one's behavior, known as situational attribution.

    9. One may experience learned helplessness when one feels as if one has no control over a situation.

    10. As one person or group becomes dependent on another, the more likely resentment will occur between the two.

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