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Stanford Prison and the Milgram Studies: What Are the Moral Limits?

Updated on August 30, 2017

Milgram and Zimbardo Learn More About Their Experiments Than Their Subjects

I was a sociology major in college. We saw the movie about the Milgram experiments in almost every class. Sociology professors loved it. The experiment advertised for subjects by saying that it was designed to learn how people learn. That was not true. It was actually meant to study how far someone will go "when following orders". It took place in 1961, a time when the world was still very aware of what happens when people, 'just follow orders'.

Ten years later, in 1971 Phillip Zimbardo, of Stanford University wanted to know what would happen if you took 70 male college students, made some of them prisoners and others prison guards. He was honest with his subjects, but not much more ethically aware. He was testing the assumptions that inherent personality traits were the key to prison abuse.

This lens uses two unethical experiments to explore the issue of what happens to people who have no or little power when they are given a lot of power over people who are more powerless. I suggest that they suffer.

Milgram in a Nutshell

The experimenter (E) orders the teacher (T), the subject of the experiment, to give what the latter believes are painful electric shocks to a learner (L), who is actually an actor and confederate. The subject believes that for each wrong answer, the learner was receiving actual electric shocks, though in reality there were no such punishments. Being separated from the subject, the confederate set up a tape recorder integrated with the electro-shock generator, which played pre-recorded sounds for each shock level.[1]

Sounds simple right? All they wanted to do was to find out what persons will 'follow orders' even if their conscious protests. They learned that people who had more important jobs were more likely to torture, but they learned little to nothing as to why or other complex questions

What they didn't count on was the mental torture that happened to the real subjects. The men who were ordered to give shocks of increasing intensity suffered an agony that lasted far beyond any physical pain that they would have inflicted had the experiment been as described.

The Milgram Experiments

These films are disturbing. Watch at your own discretion. I would not put them here if I didn't think that they were also important.

Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Study

The Stanford Prison Study

1971, ten years after Milgram Philip Zimbardo of Stanfors selected 24 young volunteers out of 70 to enter the pseudo prison he created. The 24 were chosen for their lack of psychological conditions, physical problems, criminal history or anything that might interfere with the experiment. Some became guards and others prisoners. The roles were decided by a 'toss of a coin'.

Zimbardo had been friends with Stanley Milgram of Yale the creator of the ethically challenged Milgram experiments. Again they wanted to study the inherent issues within the human that created prison abuse. They did not study the inherent issues of the institution.

The guards had an orientation meeting where they were told they could not physically harm anyone, however two days after the start several showed strong sadistic tendencies.

After four days the prisoners were talking about escape and guards became increasingly cruel.

Zimbardo stopped the experiment after 6 days, stating that even he had gotten more involved in his role than he ever expected he would.

The Stanford Prison Study

The Stanford Prison Study
The Stanford Prison Study

Is Heirarchy the Source of Evil?

The Message:

The point of the Milgram and Stanford Prison Experiments is that in the right conditions most people can do things that they would other wise consider immoral and that will cause them pain after the fact. The institutions must change, in order to protect the employees as much as the inmates.

This is not in any way to be considered an excuse for those who do horrible things. People are responsible for their behavior.

Stanford Prison Study: A Tourist Attraction?

My Experience With Death Row Guards

The Toll On Death Row Guards

The guards are dragging Puff Daddy to his death by lethal injection. Heath Ledger, a young guard who was friends with Puff, is part of the crew, but before they get to the death chamber, Heath vomits violently and has to leave. His father, another guard, is disgusted.

However, this may have been overly dramatic, but it does illustrate a real issue. The article above discusses the psychological cost of executions to guards on Texas' Death Row. This isn't a movie, it is real.

I spent several years doing a ministry in the North Carolina prison where the executions happened. Every week, I visited an inmate, Ed Lemons. I was there to minister to him, but he taught me enough that sometimes I wondered who was helping who. Ed was a special person. It was not unusual for a guard to say, as I went through the lengthy sign in process, for a guard to say, "Oh, you are going to see Ed! Tell him 'hey' for me!" Ed, a hemophiliac, actually died of AIDS from a bad blood transfusion he got in the 80's at age 11. None of the guards who liked and admired him had to participate in his killing. But what if they had? What would that have cost them?

One Easter I left my visit early, so I was alone with the guard as I checked out and waited for the elevator. I said something empathetic about his having to work on a holiday so that the prisoners could see their families on the holiday. He replied, "They are a lot like us, they just got caught". I was taken aback at his candor, but didn't really believe him. Central Prison is not a drunk tank where men dry out nor is it for shoplifters. It houses all of death row. The 'general population' contained some really nasty, violent criminals. I did not nor do I believe that any of the guards, let alone enough to be called, 'we', were violent criminals or murders. I do believe that working there, they tend to start to identify with some of the prisoners. And what happens to the guards when they kill these prisoners?

The picture here is from Korea. I don't know what the guards were thinking or what it cost them, but I wonder...

Is It The Person or the Institution?

This dual is not to suggest that people who do bad things are not responsible for their behavior. Most prisoners are guilty and are responsible for being there. Guards who are abusive are responsible.

However, this dual is about the damage done to the souls and psyches of of the powerless who are up in the positions of power over those who are more powerless.

The Institution That Gives Powerless People Power Over Others Hurts Both

Views of Prisoners and Guards

Johnny Cash - A Concert Behind Prison Walls (with Audio CD)
Johnny Cash - A Concert Behind Prison Walls (with Audio CD)

"A Concert Behind Prison Walls" features legendary performers Johnny Cash, Linda Ronstadt and Roy Clark performing their greatest hits for the inmates. The concert aired on national television, and features rare, live performances of this trio of superstars’ greatest hits, now captured on this special DVD & CD collectors’ edition. DVD TRACKLISTING: 01 Folsom Prison Blues - Johnny Cash 02 Sunday Morning Coming Down - Johnny Cash 03 Jacob Green - Johnny Cash 04 Desperado - Linda Ronstadt 05 You’re No Good - Linda Ronstadt 06 Rolling In My Sweet Baby’s Arms - Roy Clark 07 That Honeymoon Feeling - Roy Clark 08 Shuckin’ The Corn - Roy Clark 09 Half As Much - Foster Brooks 10 Love Has No Pride - Linda Ronstadt 11 Silver Threads And Golden Needles - Linda Ronstadt 12 Hey Porter - Johnny Cash 13 Orange Blossom Special - Johnny Cash 14 A Boy Named Sue - Johnny Cash CD TRACKLISTING : 01 Folsom Prison Blues - Johnny Cash 02 Sunday Morning Coming Down - Johnny Cash 03 Jacob Green - Johnny Cash 04 Comedy Routine - Foster Brooks 05 Desperado - Linda Ronstadt 06 You’re No Good - Linda Ronstadt 07 Rolling In My Sweet Baby’s Arms - Roy Clark 08 That Honeymoon Feeling - Roy Clark 09 Shuckin’ The Corn - Roy Clark 10 Half As Much - Foster Brooks 11 Love Has No Pride - Linda Ronstadt 12 Silver Threads And Golden Needles - Linda Ronstadt 13 Hey Porter - Johnny Cash 14 Wreck Of The Old Ninety Seven - Johnny Cash 15 Orange Blossom Special - Johnny Cash 16 A Boy Named Sue - Johnny Cash

The Shawshank Redemption (Two-Disc Special Edition)
The Shawshank Redemption (Two-Disc Special Edition)

When a timid banker is convicted of murdering his wife and her lover hes sent to shawshank prison. The convicts bet he wont last the first night. He befriends the convicts leader red and turns hope and friendship into an uplifting bond no prison can destroy. Studio: Warner Home Video Release Date: 04/05/2005 Starring: Tim Robbins Morgan Freeman Run time: 142 minutes Rating: R


More on Prisons

The Prison Angel: Mother Antonia's Journey from Beverly Hills to a Life of Service in a Mexican Jail
The Prison Angel: Mother Antonia's Journey from Beverly Hills to a Life of Service in a Mexican Jail

Like Dead Man Walking and The Cloister Walk, this stirring book is a story of spiritual transformation, one that is all the more remarkable because that transformation took place late in life. For nearly thirty years, Mother Antonia has lived in Tijuana’s La Mesa prison, where she ministers to some of the most maltreated inmates on earth. But before she took up her calling at age fifty, the Catholic nun was a Beverly Hills socialite who had been married and divorced twice and raised seven children. In chronicling her journey, The Prison Angel demonstrates the power of radical kindness to change the human heart.

Are Prisons Obsolete?
Are Prisons Obsolete?

Amid rising public concern about the proliferation and privitization of prisons, and their promise of enormous profits, world-renowned author and activist Angela Y. Davis argues for the abolition of the prison system as the dominant way of responding to America’s social ills. “In thinking about the possible obsolescence of the prison,” Davis writes, “we should ask how it is that so many people could end up in prison without major debates regarding the efficacy of incarceration.” Whereas Reagan-era politicians with “tough on crime” stances argued that imprisonment and longer sentences would keep communities free of crime, history has shown that the practice of mass incarceration during that period has had little or no effect on official crime rates: in fact, larger prison populations led not to safer communities but to even larger prison populations. As we make our way into the twenty-first century—two hundred years after the invention of the penitentiary —the question of prison abolition has acquired an unprecedented urgency. Backed by growing numbers of prisons and prisoners, Davis analyzes these institutions in the U.S., arguing that the very future of democracy depends on our ability to develop radical theories and practices that make it possible to plan and fight for a world beyond the prison industrial complex.


Any Purchase Here Will Contribute to Heifer International: The Pay It Forward Entrepreneurial Charity

I Thank You for Reading This Tough Lens. I Would Appreciate One More Step, I'd Like to Hear From You.

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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      There is much to do in reforming this institutions. Power generally corrupts people and they misuse it, very few understand the strength of power and where to use it. Bottom line is to be wary and use power only when in absolute necessity -a great thought provoking lens.

    • jolou profile image


      7 years ago

      Certainly a very deep and thought provoking lens.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Im glad to have found this post as its such an interesting one! I am always on the lookout for quality posts and articles so i suppose im lucky to have found this! I hope you will be adding more in the future...phentramin-d | buy diet pills | phentramin-d reviews | phentermine diet pills

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I can't believe they did this, horrible

    • LisaAuch1 profile image

      Lisa Auch 

      7 years ago from Scotland

      Oh my goodeness this rose the heckles! I watched in horroe as some children would arrive, needing "care and shelter" never once having a record against them, to leaving the school (a term i will use very lightly) with a list of convictions as long as my arm.

      I also saw staff come to work, as lovely caring individuals and was horrified to later hear how they would talk about the children.....I can feel myself getting angry, which tells me margo you have written a truly thought provoking and interesting article. Thankyou

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Two classics of social psychology. I'm adding this link to my student resources site at uni' via De.lici.ous and lens-rolling to The Power Of Cults, How To Influence and Persuade People. Your readers might be interested in the Harvard University site called The Situationist which has contemporary articles about about how situation affects behaviour.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Very interesting lens

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      that's an interesting topic!


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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Wait a second, is the prison movie The Experiment based on the Stanford Prison and the Milgram experiments? If yes, never give power to an individual!

    • Surreymagic profile image


      8 years ago

      A powerful and thought provoking lens- the Milgram and Stanford experiments are fascinating and scary, I believe Milgram was exploring why and how the Nazi's happened and hoping to find that most people refused to give the "lethal electric shocks".

      Derren Brown (UK mental magician) repeated the Milgram experiment as part of his special "The Heist"- which was deliberately controversial.

    • MargoPArrowsmith profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      [in reply to JaguarJulie] Yes, that's an interesting way to put it, but it is certainly 'Simon Says' gone wrong.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Would you say, this is a whole 'nuther level to "simon says!" ?

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      [in reply to Chacounne] Just thought I'd give you the link to my new lens: Torture is ALWAYS wrong!

      Thanks very much,


    • MargoPArrowsmith profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago

      [in reply to Chacounne] If you read this, please put on 'your 'respond to me' I applaud your cause here. I look forward to your lenses and hope you will keep me updated. I also hope you will chime in on Torture Illegal and Unaffective LINK

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Excellent lens!

      My husband was a Vietnam vet who survived torture. He suffered from his injuries for over thirty years, until his fatal heart attack three and a half years ago. Dan left me a mission; to stop torture as the law, policy and practice of the United States and to push to ensure that those responsible are held accountable.

      Standing for justice and accountability,

      For Dan,


    • LisaDH profile image


      9 years ago

      Under the right (wrong) circumstances, I think all people are capable of behaviors they might not normally engage in. These studies certainly seem to prove that.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Great lens!!! Can't wait to read more from you :) 5*

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 

      9 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      Extremely interesting and educational.

    • monarch13 profile image


      9 years ago

      Great Synopsis, reminds me why I dislike so many of our current governments (US) policies, which gives a "chosen few", absolute authority over so many.


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