IwasA Guard in the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment. AMA!
My short bio: My name is John Mark and I was a guard in the Stanford Prison Experiment. Picture of me at the time: http://i.imgur.com/ooByQAZ.jpg
A good article from Stanford Magazine that describes various perspectives, including my own:
I have also written several letters to the editor of Stanford magazine which describe my experience, for additional background:
And a reflection from Zimbardo on my remarks:
My Proof: http://imgur.com/a/68OAW
I'm here with my nephew helping me out with the reddit stuff. AMA!
Thanks to /u/bachiavelli for the AMA Request!
EDIT: I'm signing off now, but I appreciate the questions and the interest for something that happened long before a lot of you were probably even born. In the 1900's, Piltdown man was discovered as a major archeological discovery before it was disproven after more than 50 years of common acceptance. I make the reference because, at least in my opinion, the Prison Experiment will one day suffer a similar fate, if it hasn't already. Thanks everyone for taking the time and for the questions!
I think that most people don't understand the construct of "the experiment." To begin with, how is it possible that the lead researcher who is suppose to be impartial was the prison warden making all the important decisions every step of the way?
On the question of ethics, I don't think most people realize that lots of the tension created in the experiment came from sleep deprivation and waking prisoners in the middle of the night for prisoner counts. This is a form of internationally recognized torture. The American psychological society has since banned this type of experiment using these techniques, but Zimbardo and his staff allowed and encourage this behavior and other behavior to prisoners. It all comes down to Zimbardo being warden and in charge of everything that the prison guards did and what was inflicted on the prisoners.
Was Zimbardo charged with any crime? Did any of the prisoners try to quit?
I did contact the head of ethics at the American Psychological Society and had an exchange. While he was never sanctioned, they did prohibit a lot of his techniques as a result (they weren't prohibited at the time). To me, I don't know why he wouldn't be retroactively sanctioned, or have his results called into question as a result, but that's the way it is.
I know a lot of the prisoners didn't like it. There was one prisoner who was kicked out, which was, in my opinion, his way of trying to quit.
do you think any good came from the experience?
Honestly, I think it would have been better if it had never happened. It introduced a concept of innate human evil into accepted common wisdom that I don't believe to be true and I especially don't believe that experiment to be the proof of that.
Wow, it was never taught to me this way when I studied Psych. We used the Stanford experiment to talk about prison mentalities actually and how prison effects people and changes them. How people become what the situation calls for. Like you said above that Lombardo set up that experiment and you did what you were told as a kid. That happens so often in todays world too, or in war zones. People do what they have to do, or because they are supposed to because it's expected... when do we stop and think about what we SHOULD do based on our own personal ethics?
I understand your point. I am a very independent thinker and a person who takes responsibility for my own actions.
In that prison experiment, leaving would have been an option, but I didn't for several reasons: first off, from my perspective, I didn't see that much happening that was bad. People looking back now (that weren't even born then) can see it in black-and-white, two-dimensionally. At the time, it went on pretty much as advertised. Some people played prisoner, some played guard. I would have rather been a prisoner, but I accepted my assigned role. Also, I felt a commitment when I agreed to participate in the experiment. For all I knew, if I left, the whole experiment could have unraveled. Also, I felt like this was a unique experience and I enjoyed getting paid for doing something unusual. I really had no idea how the results would be twisted for a few bucks.
Was there a "mob mentality" with the guards? Was it a situation where there were a few that were there to be altruistic, or more humane, that eventually evolved into a sadistic display?
I don't think there was any mob mentality, as far as I know. I think everyone went in to it on their own terms. You have to realize we were all so young. We were barely 20. I hadn't had many jobs at the time, so I took it seriously as a job. As far as I could tell, it did not evolve into a mob mentality, that was part of the myth. I talked about it in my first letter posted above.
I see that. Makes sense. but the fact is that the "inmates" were essentially dehumanized. Was this more of 1 or 2 "starting the ball rolling" and the others joining in? Or were there legitimate differences in each individual guard? I think the media reports would lend to your misconception/mythos - but I'm curious if the more sinister parts of the expiriment were supported by the group - or more of "individual lone rangers" ?
The basic structure of the experiment dehumanized the prisoners to begin with. They were stripped of their clothes, they were naked except for a sheer, light smock. They wore a stocking on their head, which looked really surreal to me at the time, and sandals.
We weren't allowed to know their names or talk about them in any way. They were a number. We were encouraged to line them up and do counts. That's how they broke down that one prisoner. He didn't like the count. I wouldn't like the count, either. Being asked over and over what your number is. He ended up in solitary confinement. The dehumanization was part of the construct, it was set-up before we even started.
As a guard, we were looking at them in a compromised position. They gave the guards real weapons (batons) with no training and, at times, the prisoners would be tied up and shackled (I'm not positive of that they were shackled, actually, can't remember for sure). So, if push came to shove, they set up an unfair advantage for the guards. So, if something came up and even if both sides were justified, the guards were completely at an advantage. I would blame all the dehumanization on the construct of the experiment rather than the innate behavior of the guards.
That is really quite amazing. It sounds as if there was a bias or almost a supportive nature to trest the "inmates" as cruelly as possible without physical intimidation/torture. Judging from your other responses, it seems clear to me, in your view at least, this experiment was not scientifically sound. there was a huge bias built into even the planning and execution of it?
I felt that Zimbardo had a conclusion and he constructed "an experiment" to demonstrate it. That was my belief at the time and now.
Do you regret participating in the experiment? What insight if any did you gain from participating?
I don't regret participating. Clearly, it was a landmark event, even if my personal belief is that the conclusions were distorted. My biggest regret is that I wasn't a prisoner. My biggest regret as a guard was that I didn't pass joints to the prisoners as I wanted to because I didn't want to ruin the experiment. I didn't realize at the time that drugs in prisons were common. I didn't want to be the one to distort the whole experiment.
Did you ever keep in touch with anyone else from the experiment? Does it ever come up in your daily life anymore?
The "bad" guard from the night shift was a high school friend of mine. Unfortunately, the experiment, and the way his play acting was interpreted as real tainted the results and caused me to not feel as friendly toward him anymore after that. Occasionally, we meet at reunions and at one occasion he apologized for his behavior.
The prisoner who was removed from the experiment for a "breakdown" was the younger brother of one of my friends, but I never had any subsequent contact with him. When he was removed, he was replaced by a new prisoner who was, in fact, a grad student working with Zimbardo who was placed as a mole to find out what the student prisoners were up to. This new prisoner/grad student was also an acquaintance of mine. So, while I didn't out him, and I'm sure none of us were suppose to know he was part of the research team, nor was his background ever published, to my knowledge, I knew who he was.
do you mean the guy who Zimbardo referred to as the "John Wayne" guard?
Yes. He was a friend of mine in high school. He performed in plays in high school and went on to be a theatre major in college. He went into the experiment as if it were a theatrical role. He chose the persona of 'Cool Hand Luke.' The prisoners didn't know him and he was there in the middle of the night, so it was very intrusive. He did such a good job of play-acting that people, including the researchers, took that as his true personality. Even he, using method acting, became more and more involved in that persona as it went on, but it was an act. He could have been a light, jovial character if he wanted to be. Taken literally, the strength of his character and behavior colored the whole experiment.
Is there a particular moment from the experiment that has stayed with you the most?
It was unfortunately that after the experiment we never had a full group debriefing. Rather, I can't speak for the prisoners, but the guards met with the researchers after the experiment. During the debrief, we were encouraged to say bad things about the prisoners. We were then told that we did such a good job that we would be rewarded with a $30 bonus on top of our $15/day ($90 total) pay. At that point, I spoke up and said that I thought that was bullshit and that if anyone should get a bonus, it should be the prisoners. They were there 24/7 and we were only there for 8 hour shifts. After I said that, I got up and walked through a side door. When I opened the door, I saw all the prisoners watching us through a one-way mirror. I was shocked since I had never heard of a mirror like that at the time and it really took me by surprise. I just chalked it up as another in a seemingly never-ending series of deceits of trying to pit us against one another and leave the experiment feeling animosity towards the other group. It felt indicative of how this experiment was run and managed throughout.
Thank you for the response! I can't believe that even after the experiment seemingly ended, they were still trying to turn the two groups against each other.
I had been in a lot of experiments, and almost always you would have a group debrief to hear everyone's thoughts. To me, to continue to isolate us after the experiment was over made it feel more evident that Zimbardo started with a conclusion and didn't want us coming together to discuss other possible results.
During the debriefing, did any of the other prison guards express views that were contrary to his conclusion? Also, I read that one of the prisoners who was put in solitary confinement didn't have food. Is this true, or were the prisoners properly fed? What kinds of meals were they given?
Not any remarks that I recall.
It was so long ago, I really can't remember what food they were fed, but I do remember it was pretty minimal and bland. As far as the prisoner in solitary confinement locked in a closet, I can't remember whether he got food, or not, but I think it was pretty bad just being locked in the closet. I mean, it was a tiny closet.
How did you get involved in the experiment in the first place?
I was a Stanford student and the ad was placed in the Stanford Daily. I had participated in many experiments, both because they were interesting and for the money. This one paid much better than most. Hard to believe now, but $15/day sounded like a lot. And it sounded very interesting.
Not long before I had two very real brushes with the authorities. While I was at Stanford in France in 1970, I was caught at a French border with some hashish and was told I'd be going to prison, but after several hours they let me go. Also, while in France, I mailed home candles with hashish that were caught by drug sniffing dogs at customs. For that, custom agents went to my parent's house and an arrangement was made where by there would be no prosecution if I had no further incidents for 5 years.
Those two incidents terrorized me regarding the penal system and jail and a part of me felt that I was lucky to not be in jail. So, I when I saw the experiment, I very much wanted to be a prisoner and I strongly expressed that in my interview. In hindsight, I understand why they didn't want me to be a prisoner. I think they understood that my recent experiences and my mindset would have allowed me to withstand any part of the prisoner experience in the experiment.
So how did that mess with you, wanting to become a prisoner but ending up the warden? It must be a power trip for someone who fears the penal system to find out that they're the dealer and not the receiver.
First of all, to clarify, I was a guard, not the warden (Zimbardo was the warden). But as a guard, I did not feel any sort of power trip. I sort of begrudgingly performed my duties, as distasteful as they were.
Do you think the experiment had any effect on how you raised your children?
No, YichaoWM. Do you?
I often hear reports of terrible things happening to the prisoners in this experiment. Do you have any firsthand accounts of the brutality or immorality of the guards? Did you partake in any of these behaviors?
I was a guard on the day shift. Maybe it was the time of day (even though to the prisoners it was the same since they weren't allowed outside), but I don't think anything out of the ordinary happened on the dayshift. While I found the construct of the experiment to be somewhat humiliating to the prisoners, I certainly didn't witness or participate in any acts of brutality.
How do you feel about the movie that just came out? Have you seen it? Were you or any other participants that you know of contacted about the film?
I haven't seen the film, I didn't know about the film, I wasn't contacted about the film (or the other one mentioned somewhere else in the comments).
It would be very hard for people to contact participants because to this day, more than 40 years after the experiment, Zimbardo keeps the name of all the participants a secret. While interviewers have tried to gather a wider perspective from the participants, very few of their identities are known. In my opinion, this isn't for privacy, but to give Zimbardo more control of the narrative.
Because of my letters, I have been contacted over the years by skeptical psychology professors, reporters, authors, and even a prison warden. But I think that if all the participants who chose to participated in a panel discussion, much of the conventional wisdom gained from the experiment might get called into question.
This is a fascinating AMA, thanks for doing it! I'm looking at the wikipedia article at the moment, and trying to sort out some facts.
The article corroborates what you've said about the "John Wayne" guard treating it as an acting exercise, and that Zimbardo was the warden, which by itself seems damning to me as far as any scientific validity goes. The criticism section also confirms a lot of your general points about the (in)validity of the experiment.
However, according to wikipedia that there were some very disturbing incidents during the experiment. For example (emphasis mine),
...prisoners in Cell 1 blockaded their cell door with their beds and took off their stocking caps, refusing to come out or follow the guards' instructions. Guards from other shifts volunteered...and subsequently attacked the prisoners with fire extinguishers without being supervised by the research staff. Finding that handling nine cellmates with only three guards per shift was challenging, one of the guards suggested that they use psychological tactics to control them.
Can you comment on the accuracy of the above statement, especially the fire extinguisher bit?
Edit: tact and markdown, not my strong suites!
I appreciate your background research. Now that you bring it up, I do seem to recall (it was more than 40 years ago), there was a time that prisoners didn't want to go along with the program. I think that was one of the reasons they inserted the grad student mole (discussed in another response) to find out what they were up to. I have no recollection of fire extinguishers, so I tend to doubt that happened during my shift. I have never even heard of that, as far as I recall.
I do know the prisoners resented their treatment more as time went on. I felt at the time and still feel that their poor treatment by the guards that was encouraged by the staff, and their disorientation caused by never seeing daylight and common awakenings during sleep, were major contributing factors. It is my understanding that even a real prisoner has to have some contact with daylight each day, unless they are specifically confined otherwise and sleep deprivation techniques are categorized as a torture technique in the Geneva Convention.
I do remember resistance, but I can't recollect all the details of the response. I definitely have zero recall of anything of that incident or fire extinguishers, however, during my shift.
Has your psyche been effected out side of the experiment?
Not per se, but it does bother me that the results have been so twisted and something I participated in is used to justify a whole type of human behavior that I don't believe exists, and that wasn't demonstrated by that experiment.
I'm curious, what do you think of the Milgram experiment? Do you compare it to the prison experiment?
I know a little about the Milgram experiment. I think it was different. I think that it was a one time condition reflex. I think that it was knowledge of that experiment that may have been an inspiration for Zimbardo. I think the nature of our encounter, being extended over 6 days, can't really be compared to the Milgram experiment, or any conclusions that were drawn from that. That's in my opinion, of course, I'm not a trained psychologist.
What was your initial thought when the experiment started and when it ended? Did your viewpoint change on the subject or did you really not care?
I really wanted to probe the prison experience. At that time, I was more interested personally than globally. To be honest, I wasn't at all surprised when they called it off "early" because the initial ad was worded "$15/day for up to 2 weeks", which made me think they didn't expect it to go the length.
When it ended, it ended for me. It was an interesting experiment, but I went on. I had no idea what a big deal it would become, nor did I have any idea how the "results" would be spun. If you had asked me for a summary of the experiment, it certainly wouldn't have sounded anything like the reported results.
Most of the guards were portrayed pretty badly from the documentaries I saw, were they really that bad or were they just showing the worst clips to prove a point?
I mentioned earlier what the prisoners wore, but the guard were put into military uniforms. It was mandatory to wear sunglasses and hold batons and Zimbardo had all the film and was in charge of all the editing. The way we were dressed and the things we were told to do, he could have made Will Farrell look evil. I haven't actually seen any documentaries, but I'm sure you could make a documentary to show what you want, particularly when you have control of all the source material. That was also one of the earlier days of video tape.
Do you think Zimbardo knew of the potential long term and short term effects?
I personally think Zimbardo is a self-promoting sensationalists more than a serious academic researcher and I think he was aware that this had the potential to make his career.
Here are some of my questions:
- What was the one thing going through your mind throughout the experiment?
- Has the experiment impacted your sexuality in any way?
- Did this experiment have any major permanent effects on you?
PS: Question two is just random, don't read too much into it.
The short answer is that the experiment had no effect on me personally, psychologically or sexually, then or now.
On a wider perspective, it bothers me a lot. That it's used to justify inherent evil that I don't believe exists. It makes things seem so black and white when I believe there are so many nuanced states in the middle. My frustration with the misinterpretation boiled over when it was used to explain away the prison in Iraq (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abu_Ghraib_torture_and_prisoner_abuse). That was totally over the top, that was too much for me.
The thing going through my mind during the experiment was to just do my job. I was an anthropology major. It was interesting just being there and observing what I knew was an unusual set of circumstances.
Thank you for doing this AMA! I've learned about the Standford Prison Experiment in both my psychology and sociology classes and I find it very interesting.
What was the most sadistic thing that was done to the "prisoners" that you of?
What was a typical day like?
What things did you do to the prisoners to control them? Did they have real consequences for disobeying?
I seem to recall I was on duty when they put the guy in solitary confinement. He just sort of snapped when the prisoners were asked to do their count off.
For the guards, it was pretty boring. I forget the specifics, but we sort of had a routine. We brought the prisoners at least one meal per shift. We had them do counts. I seem to recall that if they came out of their cell they were shackled. It was a unique, yet sort of boring routine experience. We then went home and came back the next day.
Like I said, I think they were shackled when not in their cell. We had the batons. As far as I know, no one ever struck someone with a baton, but if you wanted them to move along, you'd sort of nudge them. It surprised me at the time and, in hindsight, it seems shocking to me that we were given these weapons with no training or guidelines for their usage. That seemed highly irresponsible.
I have studied the Stanford Prison Experiment in class before, intriguing stuff!
Were you an aggressive guard and did you participate in any of those semi-sexual/abusive actions? If so, why? If not, did you at all feel like what was happening was wrong, regardless that it was a fake situation?
No I didn't participate. I never even heard of any semi-sexual/abusive actions.
I thought that in a number of ways the prisoners were treated worse than they needed to be. Implicitly or explicitly, we were suppose to degrade them. Again, it's just an example on the day shift, but I remember they ordered food for the guard to eat in front of them while they had awful food. To me, I thought it didn't need to be that way. You could have had a prisonerer who wasn't free to go, but didn't have to be treated with such disrespect.
Looking at the prisoners, they were all just like me. Unlike in real prisoners, there wasn't social or racial disparity. There was no animosity. They looked just like me, or people I knew.
This study was quite a significant part of my A-Level psychology class. Is there anything you would like Miss Billington to know that may not be outlined in text books? If so, why do you think these details are not included when this study is referenced?
I've never taken a class where it's taught, so I don't know how it's referenced, but my understanding is that it's suppose to prove the innate evil inside of all of us, and I don't believe that's true and I don't believe the "experiment" showed that.
Because Zimbardo was allowed to edit and publish the "results" without question, his version became, and is accepted as, gospel.
In the contexts I've learned it, it hasn't really been used to "prove" an innate evil. It's more to show the influence of having power over other people, and from a sociological perspective, how people act when taking on roles. Plus it's an example of a famous experiment later deemed unethical.
I can see some merit to that argument. But if that's the case, you don't need a prison experiment using college students, you can look at Nazi Germany and other similar historical examples.
Do you believe people are naturally evil?
I would say no. I'm not an expert, but in my experience people have certain innate qualities which are shaped by their experiences. I believe in the nature/nurture view of human behavior.
Oh gosh, I am so excited. What did you do after it ended? How were you changed?
Not to disappoint you, but I wasn't changed at all. In those days, I was just a pot-smoking, semi-student who just listened to music and took it one day at a time.
Do you think that the experiment's results are important in understanding human behaviour?
Follow up: if you think the results are important, do you think that the experiment should have been performed (in hindsight)? I ask because this experiment is a typical example used when demanding stringent ethics requirements in social science.
Not only was this unethical, I don't even believe the science was good. So, I don't see too many redeeming features the "research". When you include its widespread acceptance as proof of innate evil, I feel that it would be better if it hadn't happened because it's very hard to undo once its been unleashed and accepted.
Is your nephew also known as Victoria from reddit, aka /u/chooter?
And also, how seriously did everyone take the experiment at first? Did level of interest grow as the experiment continued?
Nephew: I tried to schedule this with the mods after that popular AMA request a couple days ago, but was rejected :(. I was hoping to get Victoria, but here I am in my uncle's basement :).
Awww you can always PM me! You're doing a great job so far.
Nephew: Complimented by Victoria! That alone made the trip to Sausalito worth it!
No, I'm not involved with this AMA, but checking it out now!
Be sure to critique the nephew's writing and look down on him if he is unable to properly convey tone like you are.
Fuck off, greatpastawars.
How'd I do?
How long did it take for you to realize that what was happening during the experiment was so morally objectionable?
I didn't know until years later when the "results" were presented to me. I didn't see the whole experiment, I only saw a third of it. There were questionable techniques and methodologies that I didn't think were right, but I didn't think it warranted a blanket proof of the inherent evil in all of mankind.
I really felt that a true experiment would have had a dispassionate, hands-off research team, that gave adequate instruction to both the prisoners and guards and let the events play out as they may. I think if that had been the case, it may have been a big nothing. It was through provocation that the hope for "results" were achieved.
Does the experiment provide insight on incidents of unreasonable group enmity in today's world for you? Things like religious phobia, or racial discrimination, for example.
That's a good question. I do believe in herd behavior, to some extent. But, my point, more specifically about this experiment, and its portrayal is somehow the guards devolved into a Lord of the Flies mentality, which was not the case. Did the role and the circumstance push guards to behavior that might be different than their normal behavior? Probably so. But did it completely transform them into a lynch mob mentality? No.
Do you like The Lighthouse Cafe? I have had breakfast all over the USA and find theirs to be among my top 3 favorites.
Yeah, it's a nice place.
100 duck sized prisoners or 1 prisoner sized duck?
why am I fighting them to begin with? can I not fight them?
Nephew: I translated the question to ask if he would rather fight 100 duck sized prisoners or 1 prisoner sized duck. But maybe that wasn't your question since you don't talk about fighting?
why am I fighting them to begin with?
Because whether it's 100 duck sized prisoners or 1 prisoner sized duck there's always something out there ready to bring us down. See this question isn't about a physical fight, this is about fighting the evil within each of us. You can either choose to fight it in parts (100 duck sized prisoners), meaning each time an evil arises you deal with that evil in that moment or you can choose to dig deep and fight the core of all of those evils are (the prisoner sized duck) and just be done of it forever. Both are acceptable strategies but different people have different philosophical outlooks on life. You're seeing a single tree while I'm asking you to step back and see the whole forest. So I ask you again... 100 duck sized prisoners or 1 prisoner sized duck?
can I not fight them?
That's only a question that you can answer
At the time, I probably would have just gotten high with the 100 duck sized prisoners.
What are your current views towards violence and do you feel that your experience in that experiment had any influence?
I think that present-day America is incredibly violent. I grew up during the Vietnam War and I thought that was bad, but at least people protested the violence. Now, I feel like violence is an accepted way of life and the only question is: to what degree?
With the exception of my resentment of using that experiment to justify guard behavior in Iraq (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abu_Ghraib_torture_and_prisoner_abuse), I don't believe it had any influent on my feeling about violence. I do feel that as bad as their actions were, the guard in Iraq were poorly trained and encouraged by their superiors. In that regard, I equate Zimbardo's role as warden, our commander-in-chief, with Donald Rumsfeld, as Secretary of Defense (more like Secretary of War, in my opinion).
I agree with Mandela. I think the penal system in America is a reflection of our racist, broken system. The move towards privatizing prisons and turning prisoners into commodities is an unfortunate, but true, reflection of the bankruptcy of capitalist morality.
Thanks for doing the Ama I know a lot of people have been have been wondering about getting first hand accounts from the experiment. My question to you is, what is something that most people don't understand about the experiment that you think is important to know?
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