Go to www.prisonexp.org where you will find an account of Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment.

You will find this activity useful for analysing issues regarding prisons (see Topic 9 of Chapter 2, Crime and Deviance) as well as illustrating some of the issues attached to sociological and psychological experiments.

Read the account, studying the slides and watching the pieces of video evidence. In a small group, now consider the following questions:

  1. How were the participants selected? What safeguards were used to ensure their suitability?
  2. Suggest five ways in which the role-play was made to feel ‘real’. Try to identify events from different stages of the experiment.
  3. How was the personal identity of each ‘guard’/’prisoner’ affected by the experiment? Identify three ways.
  4. Explain the importance of the principle of ‘divide and conquer’ in controlling prisoners.
  5. How long did the experiment last? Why was it ended prematurely? Why do you think the role-play developed in the way it did in a short period of time?
  6. Why and how did Zimbardo himself become a part of the experiment?
  7. What similarities did the experiment show with the situations in real prisons?
  8. What were the reactions of the ‘guards’ and ‘prisoners’ several months after the experiment ended?
  9. Discuss together in detail what ethical issues are revealed by this experiment.

The website referred to above also has a list of discussion questions you can try if you wish. Questions 1, 3, 8, 9, 10, 12, 15 and 16 are the ones most relevant to your course.