The original purpose of the experiment was to observe the effect that being in a prison like institutional setting has upon people, and how they react to being placed in positions both with and without authority. As it developed however, the experiment quickly spiralled out of control, the “guards” abuse of the “prisoners” became excessive causing them far more trauma than the experiment justified. Whether the experiment went horribly wrong or horribly right is entirely a matter of opinion, although the “horrible” seems pretty clear cut.
The experiment showed how good, perfectly normal people were capable of assuming roles quite contrary to their nature. The guards and prisoners were self-selecting sample groups, offered $15 dollars a day in exchange for their voluntary involvement in the experiment, their backgrounds were checked to make sure they had no records of mental illness, violence or criminal activity. These bright, mentally and physically healthy young men were selected at random into 2 groups of nine, one of which were designated as guards, the other as prisoners. The division was entirely random, the subjects had no way of influencing the selection process and no individual qualities were taken into account, although some prisoners later believed that the larger boys had been picked as guards deliberately, in fact a coin had simply been flipped nine times.
The experiment got out of control because the subjects entered too deeply into the roles they were assigned, the prisoners felt dehumanized and began to forget that they were not genuine prisoners, but only subjects in a psychological study, the guards became ever more sadistic, seeing the inmates more and more as the enemy and deserving of the treatment they gave to them as the experiment went on.
Perhaps because they did so much to prevent the prisoners feeling like real people they began to buy into their own system, it’s far easier to abuse inmate #4621 than it is 20 year old David Stubbins from Manchester. Perhaps even more dangerously, the experiment’s controller began to confuse his role as Prison Superintendent, the experiment wasn’t called off until a friend of his pointed out the immorality of what was being done to the boys. Out of 50 outsiders he had discussed the experiment with, and sometimes involved in it, she was the first to point this out to him.
The situation inside the prison showed how being placed into an artificially created extreme situations can alter people’s perceptions of what is and what is not acceptable behaviour, the failure of outsiders to intervene suggests that this is not limited to experimental conditions.