Inside The Stanford Prison Experiment That Revealed The Darkest Depths Of Human Psychology

Published October 17, 2017
Updated April 8, 2020

Too Dangerous To Continue

Shirtless Stanford prisoner

PrisonExp.orgGuards begin a strip search of a prisoner.

By day three of the Stanford prison experiment, things were rapidly coming unglued. According to Zimbardo, roughly one-third of the guards spontaneously developed signs of genuine sadism, consistently inventing new forms of punishment and egging the other guards on as these punishments were inflicted on the helpless inmates.

Guards and inmates both — who had, remember, been randomly assigned their roles only a few days prior — began identifying with their side and acting collectively. After a few days, most of the inmates had joined together in a hunger strike to protest their conditions, while the guards were pulling extra shifts for free and becoming increasingly paranoid.

When a rumor got started about prisoner #8612 coming back with a small army of supporters to stage a jailbreak, none other than Zimbardo ordered the basement prison to be disassembled and moved upstairs while he waited alone in the basement for the attackers. He later said his plan, if the man had actually shown up, was to tell him the experiment had been terminated and to send him home.

Philip Zimbardo Superindent Alone

PrisonExp.orgPhilip Zimbardo waits alone in the basement of Jordan Hall for the rumored attack on the experiment led by a prisoner who became unhinged and was released early.

By this point, Zimbardo had become fully immersed in the experiment himself. As he later admitted, it was never going to be possible for him to maintain objectivity in his role as prison administrator, and so he found himself bound up in the fantasy world he had created for his test subjects. Zimbardo found himself becoming morbidly curious about where the experiment was going and what new developments each day would bring.

By day four, when certain inmates were becoming suicidal and apparently losing their grip on reality, Zimbardo thought the situation interesting enough to bring in his girlfriend — herself a psychology graduate student — to have a look at what was going on. The woman, 26-year-old Christina Maslach, was appalled by what she saw and said so.

In the past, whenever a new person was brought in from the outside — such as prisoner #416, who replaced #8612 — they went through a period of normalization.

But #416’s objections to his treatment got him locked up in solitary, where the guards would torment him by pounding on the door with their hands in shifts. By the time he got out of the solitary confinement closet, prisoner #416 had been sufficiently broken as to accept the routine of prison life as normal.

Maslach, on the other hand, couldn’t be locked up or broken in that way, and her fresh perspective on what was going on shocked her boyfriend into seeing his nightmare through her eyes. So it was that on day six of the Stanford prison experiment, Dr. Zimbardo announced its termination — much to the dismay of his guards, who had grown to quite like the power they had been abusing all week.

Afterward, everybody was still unhinged enough that it took a full day to “parole” the remaining inmates, though — again — the experiment was over and they weren’t being paid anymore; they could have just left.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.