• Claire Naughton

The Stanford Prison Experiment, Foreshadowing the Inescapability of Police Brutality

Updated: Jul 23, 2020

There have been a lot of blunt conversations started as a result of American police officers' continued use of excessive force against minority communities, especially Black communities. Americans who don’t fall into either of these categories are often horrified and taken aback by the fervor with which Black Lives Matter is seizing the moment and refusing to let anyone look away, especially White communities. Between the insistent, pervasive racism that plagues American police systems and the insistent defenders of those who don’t want to believe an unjustifiable truth, lies a pile of psychological research that tells us how this problem came to exist, and continues to exist, to this day.

I know Americans aren’t always the most into science right now, and I know that psychology gets a bad rap in the science community, too. However, the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 is a literal template that maps the problem in such a way that both “sides” to the issue (the one that correctly maintains that American policing is a textbook example of institutionalized racism and the other that naively bleats “not all cops.” Guys, that's irrelevant.).

The Stanford Prison Experiment was a social psychology experiment conducted over the summer on campus in Palo Alto, California. Volunteers were initially recruited by placing an ad in a local newspaper that said the study was about psychology and prison life. Participants were carefully vetted beforehand, undergoing tests and examinations to ensure that only the healthiest and most mentally stable would be selected. The final group was 24 White males from the United States and Canada. The group was then split in half, with the toss of a coin determining whether a participant became a “guard” or a “prisoner” for the purposes of the study.

A coin toss here might be considered analogous to the body we’re born into as American citizens—are we born into a White body, that so often determines (or completely rewrites) narratives according to self-interest, or are we born into a Black body and so often subjected to feeling like lesser than because of White insecurity and self-interest?

Those who had the lucky chance to be made guards arrived at the “prison,” a converted basement section of a Stanford building that had been designed in consultation with a real-life former prisoner who had served nearly 20 years. Those who were simply unlucky were duly rounded up as if they had committed an actual crime: arrested, handcuffed, brought to the prison. At the prison, the “guards” were allowed to take over, overseeing the stripping of the prisoners and assignment of new clothing. The guards were told that they were allowed to do whatever they thought was necessary, within limits, (whatever that means) to maintain “law and order” in their facility.

One individual, just an undergraduate at Stanford, was given the title of warden. He received this position because it quickly became clear that he had the most affinity for his position of power with unclear regulation and limits. Under his tenure, he subjected the “prisoners” to humiliating physical and mind games that quickly came to feel routine—the converted basement area had been stripped of clocks and so there was no way for the prisoners to keep track of time. The guards were free to harass and intimidate as they pleased, for the sake of the study… but “within limits.”

Within just one day of the prisoners’ arrival, a rebellion broke out. Within six days, the experiment was called off due to the moral and ethical problems posed by a group of individuals who had so taken to their roles that the line between their true individual selves and study-identities had blurred nearly past distinction. Mental breakdowns, overly aggressive guards, petty punishments and humilitations, and constantly shifting alliances corroded the ability of the participants to maintain a grasp on reality--the reality being that they were just college kids making some extra money during the summer.

Three groups of guards were identified: “tough but fair,” “good guys,” and “hostile, arbitrary, and inventive in their forms of prisoner humiliation” (1). According to the results of the study, none of the intensive preliminary screening tests participants had undergone were able to predict which category a “guard” would fall into.

In this way, the Stanford Prison Experiment functions as a startling simulation of the real-life problems that lurk insidiously within the very structure of policing in the United States. The implications of a study that demonstrates that it essentially impossible to identify which individuals will be unable to exercise power humanely and ethically combined with the simple fact that the police system in the US is based off a model that was used to capture runaway slaves (3) should tell us that it is impossible for change to happen within the framework of the existing structure. In fact, the need for police work decreases in areas with less poverty, higher levels of education, and lower unemployment rates (4).

The Stanford Prison Experiment set out to examine the psychology of human behavior when one group is told that they have power over another. The study discusses it’s findings and often compares the guard’s behavior to that of the Nazi’s. There should be no debate as to whether or not all policemen are bad, that’s not the point. The point is that the system is poisoned, and a poisoned system is not one that facilitates operations, which in theory is the safety and well-being of human beings. When you have a theory that is not realized by an experiment, you end it.


1., 2, https://www.prisonexp.org/

3. https://www.npr.org/transcripts/869046127

4. https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/88476/how_do_people_in_high-crime_view_the_police.pdf

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