The Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment

One of the most popular sociological experiments that raised debates and multiple questions in the field of sociology is the Stanford Prison Experiment. The film is a docudrama thriller film created in 2016 by Kyle Alvarez (Alvarez, 2015). It revolves around Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford prison experiment was carried out at Stanford University. In the experiment, students played the roles of prisoners and guards. Zimbardo was investigating the hypothesis of how roles rather than personality traits were the major indicators of individuals’ behavior. Approximately 24 male students were selected to take different roles in the experiment in a 14-day prison simulation. Participants who took the roles of guards became abusive in the long run while two students who took the roles of prisoners suffered psychological problems. After only six days, Zimbardo abruptly stopped the experiment. The film received a positive response from critics upon its release in 2015. The Stanford Prison Experiment film portrays several themes covered throughout the course including the sociological perspective, ethics of sociological research methods, and the power of social institutions.

Themes that Emerge from the Film

Sociological Perspective

The Stanford Prison Experiment brings out different sociological perspectives about society. Even though the experiment was conducted to examine the psychological effects of prisons, it significantly portrays how people’s behaviors can change as a result of the roles they take in society (McIntyre, 2014). People play different roles in society including being friends, sisters, mothers, fathers, wives, students, and coworkers. They diligently work to balance their responsibilities which may lead to dysfunctions in their lives if they are not attained. People need to examine the roles they play to lead healthy lives. Zimbardo pioneered in exploring people’s behaviors, social roles, and how they are affected in specific situations.

Stanford Prison Experiment showed how people can quickly dissolve their identities to take and fit into certain social roles in society. The aftermath and outcome of the experiment remain significant in contemporary psychology. In the experiment, Zimbardo selected participants to demonstrate the average societal members (Perlstadt, 2018). Since the guards took positions of power, they started to behave contrary to their normal behaviors in real life. The prisoners took challenging roles where they became passive, had no real control, and became depressed. This shows some societal roles have heavy expectations that seem to become parts of people’s identities.

Ethics of Social Research

The Stanford Prison Experiment film also raises questions concerning the ethics of social research. By placing himself as warden Dr. Zimbardo compromised his objectivity. When an individual compares the film from the Stanford Prison Experiment to those from the U.S. Military at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, it should be frightening; when one realizes that that military personnel was prison guards in the United States as civilians, this should be terrifying. Also, it could be argued that the experiment should have been shut down as soon as it became abusive to the participants. Whether or not the information obtained by the study was valuable. Participants in studies should always understand the possible negatives effects of an experiment (McIntyre, 2014). Also, the people running the study should carefully monitor it to make sure it does not harm the people participating and if it does they should stop it before it gets to the point in this study that was not done. In the experiment, basic human rights of free will were broken even before the guards became unstable; the prisoners had no right to speak and had to fully concede to the guards.

Not only was the Sanford Prison Experiment unethical but it was unscientific as well. It is impossible to simulate a prison environment without actually creating a prison in the process. It is easy and takes little time to make someone feel trapped (Le Texier, 2019). This experiment is a classic example of the need for ethical guidelines in experimentation. The psychological effects on the clients were long-term and destructive since most participants felt them decades later.  That is certainly not news to social scientists, so even though this may have been a dramatic demonstration it was an unnecessary addition to the social science database. The fact that the so-called prisoners experience momentary trauma is also hardly surprising given what they were subjected to.

People have to constantly question researchers to maintain their humanity to not become perfectly objective in all research. There is no clarity of what the approval process was when the experiment was done but it is evident that Zim’s Stanford colleagues were appalled (McIntyre, 2014). It also turns out that there was information not present in the original report, and there have been more than several suspicious raised about what was left out. What is mostly proves is that a social scientist is bent on getting publicity and appearances. While this as a general conclusion is reasonable, and supported by other observations and experiments, there were issues with both the methodology and the ethics of the study (a google search for ‘problems with the Stanford Prison Experiment’ provides dozens of highly relevant results).

The Power of Social Institutions

Another important theme demonstrated in the Stanford Prison Experiment is the power of social institutions. The experiment extended its analysis to show the significant effects of social forces on people’s behavior. It shows how the power provided by social institutions can change the nature of humanity. When people are presented with a bit of power, they gave up a bit of themselves to get it. In the film, Zimbardo broke the rules and started to accidentally view himself as a sort of “warden” over the experiment (Alvarez, 2015). He began to enjoy it. One main way in which the result of the Stanford Prison Experiment is understood by the general public is that ‘power corrupts. This means that individuals or groups placed in positions of unfettered authority over others will pretty much inevitably start abusing that authority and that this tendency towards abuse of power is an integral, albeit extremely dark, part of human nature, even in otherwise normal and well-adjusted individuals.

One obvious conclusion that has been drawn from this is that people/groups in positions of authority need strong and independent checks and balances to prevent this inevitable slide into abuse. The power of social institutions has a great deal to do with dehumanization, corruption, and inhuman behavior or reflection. Most people in power, abuse, it is a part of humanity. It depends upon what level of abuse is utilized, consciousness awareness, and the aftermath of such an event (Koca-Atabey, 2020). While social institutions can provide power especially through different social roles, these roles can not only change people’s behaviors but also lead to physical and emotional harm on people who are subjects of that power.


In conclusion, the Stanford Prison Experiment’film has raised many questions in the field of sociology. In the film, Zimbardo selected 24 male students to participate in an experiment meant to examine the impacts of social roles and social settings on people’s behaviors and psychology. During the experiment, participants began showing signs of stress, depression, trauma, and other psychological problems. Several themes have been demonstrated throughout the film including the sociological perspectives, the ethics of social research, and the power of social institutions and social structures. While the film generated social dynamics insights, it also served as an example of ethical issues surrounding research. The film also provides different lessons concerning life that remain significant even in the contemporary world.



















Alvarez, K. (2015, June 12). The Stanford Prison Experiment – Official Trailer I HD I IFC Films. YouTube.

McIntyre, L. (2014). The Practical Skeptic: Core Concepts in Sociology (6th Edition). Boston: McGraw-Hill. ISBN10: 0078026873.

Le Texier, T. (2019). Debunking the Stanford Prison Experiment. American Psychologist, 74(7), 823.

Perlstadt, H. (2018). How to Get out of the Stanford Prison Experiment: Revisiting Social Science Research Ethics. Current Res. J. Soc. Sci. & Human.1, 45.

Koca-Atabey, M. (2020). Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment from the Perspective of the Social Model of Disability: A Teaching Experience. Education as Change24(1), 01-18. DOI: 10.12944/CRJSSH.1.2.01





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