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Social psychologist Philip Zimbardo (1974; Haney, Banks, & Zimbardo, 1973) wanted to investigate how role expectations shape behavior. He was intrigued by the possibility that the frequently observed cruelty of prison guards was a consequence of the institutional setting and role, not the guards’ personalities.

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In an experiment that has since become well known, Zimbardo converted the basement of a Stanford University building into a makeshift prison. A newspaper ad seeking young men to take part in the experiment for pay drew 70 subject candidates, who were given a battery of physical and psychological tests to assess their emotional stability and maturity. The most mature 24 were selected for the experiment and randomly assigned

to roles as “guards” or “prisoners.” Those assigned to be prisoners were “arrested,” handcuffed, and taken

to the makeshift prison by the Palo Alto police. The behavior of the guards and the prisoners was filmed. Within a week, the prison setting took on many of the characteristics of actual prisons. The guards were often aggressive and seemed to

take pleasure in being cruel. The prisoners began planning escapes and expressed hostility and bitterness toward the guards.

The subjects in the experiment so identified with their respective roles that many of them displayed

Despite questions about the ethics of Philip Zimbardo’s experiment, sociologists still study his work. Is it wrong to use research data gathered by means we now consider unethical? Do the results of research ever justify subjecting human beings to physical or psychological discomfort, invasion of privacy, or deception?

signs of depression and anxiety.

As a result, some were released early, and the experiment was canceledbefore the first week was over. Since the participants had all been screened for psychological and physical problems, Zimbardo concluded that the results could not be attributed to their personalities. Instead, the prison setting itself (the independent variable) appeared to be at the root of the guards’ brutal behavior and the prisoners’ hostility and rebelliousness (the dependent variable). Zimbardo’s research

shows how profoundly private

lives are shaped by the behavioral expectations of the roles we occupy in social institutions.


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