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The Psychology of Life in Prison

Updated on November 14, 2013


Understanding the psychology of prison life has been the focus of study for many researchers. Philip Zimbardo, however, conducted a study that broke barriers with his theory on behavioral tendencies. He believed that significant situations in our lives can change our usual behavioral tendencies and cause us to behave in ways that contrast our normal behavior. Zimbardo’s aim was to determine whether the environment we are in determines (or changes) our behavior. Therefore, his main research question in studying prison life was if prison changed people, or if the people in the prison system were already “different” before they went in (Hock, 2009, p. 287).

Zimbardo wanted to answer this question by creating a “research prison” with participants acting as either prisoners or guards. To test this, Zimbardo used the prison setting, a situation that is known to have a powerful influence over individuals' minds and behavior. He did so in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford University, using college students who were randomly assigned to be a guard or prisoner. In doing this, he thought that randomly placing the students as either a guard or prisoner would create different reactions among the students and influence their behavior during interactions and their overall attitudes (Hock, 2009, p. 288).

Study Objectives

Zimbardo’s goal was to simulate a true prison experience, even though the participants were aware of what they would be going through and that during the study, their personal privacy was likely to be violated. Zimbardo’s main task in this was to analyze the behavior of the participants and how their behaviors change in a certain environment. He and his associates wanted to see if the roles and situations the students were placed in would have a powerful enough influence over their behavioral tendencies and personal characteristics (Hock, 2009, p. 289).

The ‘prisoners’ were to be treated as actual prisoners, and the idea was to make them feel like prisoners, so Zimbardo could accurately measure the change in their attitudes. Contrary to the role of the prisoners was the role of the guards, who were able to live their lives outside the research prison in between their shifts. Their only task was to maintain order and control in the prison and “keep the prisoners in line” (Hock, 2009, p. 291).



As Zimbardo predicted, the real personalities of the participants were overpowered by the roles they took on. The participants essentially turned the study into real life, and it drastically changed their normal behavioral tendencies. As Zimbardo noted, the guards mentally abused the prisoners, and the prisoners developed much hatred for the guards, and became “dehumanized robots” (Hock, 2009, p. 291). Instead of opting out of the study (which was always an option for the participants), the prisoners just asked to be put on parole or released. When they would get denied by the guards, however, they just listened and stayed in their cells (Hock, 2009, p. 291). Five of the prisoners had to be relieved from the study after several days because they became extremely emotionally unstable, and stopped eating. The guards essentially became bullies, who found joy in ridiculing the prisoners. What they refused to remember, or acknowledge, was that this was just a study. However, the study turned into real life for the participants, and caused major psychological changes in their behavior.

Dr. Philip Zimbardo
Dr. Philip Zimbardo | Source

Zimbardo's Legacy

Zimbardo’s study has had a huge effect on the social and political issues of prison reform in the United States. The study opened a new door to seeing how peoples’ attitudes and behaviors change in a powerful or stressful situation, such as being in prison. Zimbardo wanted to apply the findings of his study to the evolution of our prison system since his study ended. He concluded that prisons still fail to regulate the treatment of prisoners. They are still being isolated and punished to an unnecessary degree. More importantly, Zimbardo found that prison conditions have gotten much worse, and he thinks this is due to the politicization of the prison system (Hock, 2009, p. 293).

Image of guard and prisoners in Zimbardo's study at Stanford.
Image of guard and prisoners in Zimbardo's study at Stanford. | Source


It is remarkable how much an individual can change if they are in a certain situation. It is even more remarkable that a simple study can alter the behavioral tendencies of its participants, and turn into more than just a study. Zimbardo’s study and the participants included did more than what was expected; their personalities changed completely with the situation they were put in. The prisoners became obedient, depressed, and hopeless, even when they could have gotten out of the study at any time. And the guards somehow took on some form of dictatorship with the role they were being asked to play. This holds with real-life situations, especially in our prisons today. One’s behavior definitely changes once they are entered into the prison system, or even just a stressful situation that is out of their element.

In conclusion, Zimbardo’s research has shown us a great amount of knowledge on how people’s behavior changes due to the environment we are in.

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© 2013 Ameera Nassir


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    • srsddn profile image

      srsddn 4 years ago from Dehra Dun, India

      crreamm, Quite interesting! I liked the roles the subjects played and the concomitant changes in their behaviour. Must be a difficult study. The results of the study must be used by the authorities concerned to improve the conditions in the prisons. I wonder how Philip Zimbardo accounted for the changes that usually take place in the behaviour of a prisoner from the day of a crime/offence to the day he/she reaches prisoner after undergoing the process of trial in a court which usually is a long period in many countries. Anyway, it is an interesting subject and I congratulate you on your achievement of publishing many Editor's Choice Hubs. Have a nice Sunday!