Nonfiction

Science Lab: The Stanford Science Experiment

19 August 2015

To celebrate the release of The Stanford Prison Experiment, a film adaption of the world-famous psychological study of imprisonment, grab a few friends and witness the breakdown of social niceties based on arbitrary allocations to opposing groups.

Apparatus:

  20 or so participants, the more the merrier. Ideally, they won’t have existing relationships with one another.

  Any building that could conceivably become a prison

  A hat

  X pieces of paper, where x is the number of participants you’ve gathered up to participate.

  At least a few days freed up for the experiment. The record is six.

METHOD:

Step 1. Write either ‘prisoner’ or ‘guard’ on your pieces of paper. Ensure there are more prisoners than guards.

Step 2. Have your participants select a piece of paper out of the hat. This will become their allocated group for the duration of the experiment.

Step 3. Inform your participants that they’ll be playing the part of their allocated group. Impress upon the guards the importance of keeping the prisoners in line, and impress upon the prisoners the need to comply with the guards. The guards should be allowed free rein, including the opportunity to design their own rules and corresponding punishments.

Step 4. Remove any opportunity for either group to interact with the outside world, save for deliveries of food and water.

Step 5. Take a step back from proceedings, lock the doors and let the magic begin. With any luck, your groups will quite quickly become opposed to each other, and there will be no more of the friendly banter between strangers that always occurs during extended periods of being forced to socialise.

Step 6. When things get ugly and the guards begin to abuse their powers by implementing more and more psychologically damaging punishments, don’t even consider calling off the experiment.

Step 7. (Optional bonus step) Try and beat the original experiment’s runtime of six days before being called off by the University’s ethics committee. You could host the experiment off-campus in a private residence if you want to make this step easier.

If you’ve performed these steps correctly, the two groups will genuinely hate each other by the end of the experiment and will likely need counselling to overcome the trauma of what they’ve done or been subjected to. To think that all it took was for you to create an artificial divide between two groups of otherwise amicable strangers.

The original prison experiment highlighted the interesting ways in which the assumption of different roles affects individuals’ behaviour. Many of the ‘prisoners’ involved accepted the treatment they received, despite the fact that they were able to withdraw from the study at any time. Some prisoners even helped to abuse those who were acting out, simply because they had been told to obey. It’s intriguing to wonder just how much of social interaction is based upon the fulfillment of whatever role we are assigned for different situations.


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