“The line between good and evil is permeable and almost anyone can be induced to cross it when pressured by situational forces.” – Philip Zimbardo

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Philip Zimbardo’s ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’ that took place in 1971. It’s a study I covered a lot when I studied psychology, and it’s by far one of my favourite studies that presents us with a link between power, good and evil.

It has been 46 years this month since the study took place and so I thought I’d do a little throwback to Blog 18 – a short story I wrote based on the study.

For those who aren’t familiar, in 1971, a psychologist named Philip Zimbardo created a fake prison in the basement of Stanford University in San Francisco. Volunteers to take part in the study were either randomly allocated to the role of a guard or a prisoner. Personality tests took place to eliminate those with a history of crime, drug abuse or medical disabilities.

Prisoners were arrested at their own homes, taken to a police station, fingerprinted and locked up in cells. Guards were given uniforms, badges, whistles and billy clubs. Guards were instructed to do whatever they saw fit to maintain law and order.

The experiment was intended to last a fortnight but was stopped after six days. This is because the experiment had gotten out of hand. The guards tooks to their roles to an extreme. Prisoners were stripped naked, forced to sleep without beds, rioted, went on hunger strike and were harrassed, intimidated and sexually humiliated by the guards.

It seems as though people will conform to the social roles they are expected to play.

I hope you enjoy my short story. Remember to leave your thoughts in the comments.

The Stanford Prison Study

Day 1

“You are in charge. Do whatever you think necessary to maintain law and order.”


Day 2

Cell door: locked. Inmates: silent. That’s how they liked it. Or maybe, disliked, because they couldn’t assert their authority, or the power they were so addicted to. The humiliation they put us through – that was their favourite part. If rules are broken, you’re placed in ‘the hole’ – a small closet across from the cells we are jailed in. Solitary confinement – it was enough to send a guy crazy – and it did, some of them. It was only two foot deep, two foot wide, pitch black, no windows, no sense of telling the passing of time. Somehow, we take advantage of knowing where we’re at in the day. But, with no sense of this, each second becomes a minute, each minute becomes an hour, an hour could be a day and before you realise that you might just die in there, you’re let out again, and disobeying their rules becomes unthinkable, unimaginable.

In the yard, (a long corridor, closed off at both sides) prisoners stand around rigid. They’re identical to myself: dressed in smocks, labelled by numbers, hauling around a ball and chain on their right ankle. It’s the only place we can walk ‘freely’, talk and eat. Some of the men I’ve seen before, perhaps around town over the summer or in class, I don’t know. I’m unsure of their names but they have familiar faces. As a few of them huddle together, I stand close-by hearing prisoner 416 talking of his plans to start a riot – a hunger strike. Somehow I don’t see that as a good idea after seeing what happened to prisoner 5401. He’s been in ‘the hole’ after starting a riot yesterday morning. Prisoners went mad, throwing things around their cells, barricading their doors with their beds. The guards broke into the cells, using fire extinguishers to get them away from the doors, stripped prisoners naked, made us do push ups, blindfolded, until our arms collapsed under us. Our beds were taken and we each spent the night on the ground, curled up with our arms crossed against our torso. Now, our bones ache. We are suffering.

The whistle blows. The most hostile guard, a guard we’ve nicknamed ‘John Wayne’, blows the whistle again, with more force. “Counts!” he yells. “Counts!”
So, as he paces the corridor blowing on that whistle, the other guards force us back into our cells.
“Eleven.” he shouts. “5401 stays in ‘the hole’ until I say otherwise.” he reminds the guards. As he walks by my cell to leave the yard, I regretfully say, “I didn’t get chance to go. Could I?”
“There’s a bucket in your cell. “
“It’s full,” I say. He observes where I point. Or at least I think he does. All guards wear dark glasses and eye contact has become that of a myth.
“There’s still room.”
“At least let me empty it,” I plead with him. He ignores my request and moves on down the corridor, out the door of the fake prison that feels too real. It feels real when my stomach hurts from hunger, and it will feel real when I lie on the hard floor tonight, doing my best to listen to the way the wind might sound outside, and realising for the first time, that the life I took for granted before this week might just never be the same when I leave here, and neither will I.

It’s impossible to sleep. Not that it’s easy to sleep in these conditions, but with hysterical crying coming from down the corridor, we have no chance. It must be 8612 again. He’s been screaming like this all night. I’m surprised John Wayne hasn’t flipped out yet. Although there isn’t much he can do – to shut him up I mean. 5401 is still in the hole, so no matter what you do with 8612, you’ll still hear him yelling for mercy.

“Shut it!” one of the guards shout. You can tell, his voice is hostile and it isn’t shaking. Though, it doesn’t stop him crying. He’s desperate. The poor guy just can’t take any more of this and I’m starting to think how much longer I can take, even though I’ve been keeping my head down. Luckily, they haven’t really noticed me yet.
“I said, SHUT IT!” he goes on.
8612’s cry muffles. He must have his hands on his face, his body weight relying on his knees. I can see him just like that, even though its pitch black in here.
“That’s it.” he snaps. I hear the guard slap his feet down onto the floor with each step until nothing can be heard – except for the screaming of course. I bet he’s gone to fetch good ol’ John Wayne. Jesus. What are they going to do to him?

It’s been ages now. 8612 is muttering to himself, pacing around his cell. At least the crying has stopped. Then the doors swing open. I don’t recognise the voice, because it’s kind and reassuring. I hear the keys jangle and unlock the cell. 8612 is told to collect his belongings to be escorted home. Jesus. They’ve let him out. But it’s only been two days, not even that yet.
“We’ve got two weeks of this shit!” shouts one of the prisoners. No guards are on duty to listen. They’ve all gone with 8612.
“Let us all out. This is horseshit.”

Again, there is no hope of sleeping, because they’re all yelling for their rights. I would join them but what’s the god damn point? Nobody is listening.
“He’s gonna’ get us help, I tell you. Calm down!” one of them says.
“You what?”
“Who is? What’re you on?”
“8612. The one who they just let out. He’s getting some guys together, they’re gonna’ break us outta’ here.”
“You kiddin’?”
“Not kiddin’. I heard him say so myself.”

That’s all we need – all of them getting excited over an escape plot. That guy is going to be messed up for a long time. There’s no way in hell, that that guy is going to get anyone out of here before this two weeks is up. I won’t say that though, hell no. I’ll keep my head down. It seems to be working so far.
“A’ight then.” They all say. “A’ight.”
We sleep.


Day 3

“I ain’t eating nothing.”
“Eat or starve. You ain’t getting nothing else today.”
“I’ll starve.”
“Suit yourself.” The guard takes the tray of food and shoves it in front of 5401. They must have let him out this morning. He looks awful. His face is ice-looking and his eyes are like fog. He’s sat alone. I don’t think anyone is daring enough to ask him how he’s doing or what it was like. I think that is easy enough to see.

“I ain’t eating a bite until you get me outta’ here, you hear me? I’ve had enough.” 416 says. The guard ignores him, but it catches our attention, the prisoners I mean.
“You gotta’ eat Floyd.” one of them says. He must know him well, he knows him by name and not just number.
“No. I ain’t doing it.”
“Don’t be stubborn, share mine.”
“No, I say. No way in hell.” He snaps. Now, the food isn’t good: it barely has taste. But, it’s food. We don’t get a lot of it anyhow, but having none is going to be a tough break. Who knows if it’ll work though? Maybe they’ll come around or maybe he’ll get punished. I think I know what’s more likely.
“Look, there’s no need to starve, pal. That guys gonna’ get us outta’ here ain’t he? That guy they let out last night. He’s gonna’ come back. Just gotta’ be patient.”
“Like that’s ever gonna’ happen,”
They both turn to look at me, along with all the other prisoners sat around plucking at their mashed potato with their fingers.
“And why the hell not?” he says to me. I don’t remember speaking but as I notice the sharp glare in the pairs of so many eyes I realise it was me; I’ve just forgotten the sound of my voice.
With some alienated force from nowhere, I yell “That guy could hardly stand, or wipe his own ass. Don’t you tell me he’s comin’ back here with other guys. Bullshit.”
“Oh, is that so?”
“Yeah, that’s right. Its great having hope and all but there’s no way in hell we’re going anywhere. We’re here for two weeks. We signed up for this – we’re gonna’ have to deal with it. It’s all just bullshit, this ‘escape plot’ – complete garbage.”
“Escape plot?” a guard towers over me from behind. “What’s this then?
“Nothing,” I mutter. I plunge into my mouth another heaping of cold beans, hoping he’ll forget all of that and just walk away. Instead a sharp pain comes over my head, my temple and my jaw. My vision blurs as I grab my head, warm and wet with blood.


Day 4

It’s dark. I don’t know where I am. I can hear the voices of the other prisoners yelling about something but it’s muted. My ears are ringing and my head bangs as I push myself up onto my feet. There is enough room to take a step forward and one step back. One step to the right, and one to the left but the walls are ice and my body is covered in goose bumps. I can feel them as I rub my arms over and over to warm up. I can’t see anything. I am blinded by the darkness. I can’t remember anything. I remember 5401 chowing down on a small tray of food. When was that? He’s been in the hole for ages now. Wait, no – I’m in the hole. He got out the hole. When did that happen? What am I doing in here? I bang at the walls with my arms, throwing my elbows at the door. I yell as long as I can. Nothing happens. I slide my back down against the wall holding onto my aching stomach. I’m so hungry. When are they going to let me out and eat? How long have I been in here? Am I going to starve like 416?

That is, prisoner 416. I remember now – he went on hunger strike, then I lost my cool when his pal started talking rubbish about the escape plot. That was it. It was that John Wayne wannabe – he whacked me with his baton. I feel my head where it throbs. The blood has dried into my hair. Asshole. I am going to sue this Zimbardo guy for everything he has. Someone will pay for this. And that John Wayne wannabe – I’ll have him locked up for this.


Day 5

“Brad? You alright there, fella’?” The light stabs my eyes and again my head bangs and jars. Who’s Brad? Me. That’s me. Nearly had I forgotten my own name. I had gotten so used to being prisoner 6708.
“My names is Philip Zimbardo. The experiment’s over. Let’s get you out of here.”
I can barely speak: only listen. I let him and a couple of other guys guide me out of the basement and into a car. I can’t even ask where it is we’re going. I feel weak.
“We’re going to the hospital. Let’s get your head cleaned up.” he says. He hands me a bottle of water and I take a small sip.
“The entire thing got out of hand. I want you to know that all the participants from the study are doing fine. All of you will be debriefed. You don’t need to worry about this again.”

That was it.

We didn’t have to ‘worry about it’ again.


Leave a Reply