Wed, Jun 30, 2021

The Hidden Influence of the Lab Coat in Stanford Prison Experiment

In 1971, one of the most infamous psychology experiments took place in the basement of Stanford’s Psychology Department. Male volunteers were designated to fulfill either a prisoner or a guard’s role in a makeshift prison in a two-week experiment designed by lab coat wearer Philip Zimbardo.

However, within days, the experiment was notoriously blooming thorns as the guards began to brutally exert their control over their prisoners. Soon, they were forcing the prisoners to urinate and defecate in a bucket placed in their cell, which of course, they were not allowed to empty. Others were locked in solitary confinement in a broom closet. One prisoner eventually went on to have a mental breakdown during the experiment.

At this point, the lab coat experiment had to be brought to a screeching halt a mere six days in.

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But given the high octane unraveling of both guards and prisoners, despite concluding eight days early, the experiment quickly became a focal talking point among young lab coat wearers around the country. Zimbardo’s arrival as a celebrity from the investigation turned him into an expert witness in multiple high-profile cases, most immediately the Attica Prison Riots in September 1971.

Lab Coat Authority

Ten years earlier, Stanley Milgram’s study showed that people encouraged by an authority figure in a lab coat would administer painful and deadly electric shocks to innocent people. In a similar vein to Milgram’s shocking findings, the Stanford Prison Experiment once again confirmed to the world that we can all become sadistic abusers with only the tiniest push.

However, how tiny was that push by Zimbardo and his lab coat after all?

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For instance, the guards’ duties were firmly established by Zimbardo before the experiment. In a presentation to fellow Stanford lab coat colleagues following the research’s end, he highlighted the itinerary for each prisoner’s arrival. They were strip-searched, deloused, dressed in a numbered gown with a chain placed on the ankle, ill-fitting rubber sandals, and a cap carved from a nylon stocking.

Adding further weight to the theory of Zimbardo’s guiding hand throughout the study, the professor indeed took part in the experiment himself, playing the role of the prison superintendent. There was also a warden, played by a researcher working under and taking instruction from Zimbardo. Here, when situations between prisoners and guards got out of hand, the superintendent and warden overlooked them, implying that all was well with the guards’ behavior. Similarly, as the participants knew that their every move was being monitored, the silence from the lab coats was read as a nodding approval, and the guards' actions began to drastically escalate. To the guards, each unreprimanded incident felt it meant they could carry on as usual. To the prisoners, it spelled out that help was not coming.

A Lab Coat on the Scales

Taking this view of the Zimbardo study, a team of British researchers recreated the experiment in 2001. Their prime thesis was that the guards acted tyrannically, not because of the toxic combination of groups and power. They believed that the pivotal moment in Zimbardo’s experiment was when the man in the lab coat stepped in as prison superintendent and told the prisoners that they couldn’t leave the study. This revelation disoriented the prisoners, whose ranks of solidarity among one another crumbled against the guards' brutality, and it became every man for himself in terms of avoiding taking punishment from the egomaniacal guards.

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Interestingly, the British team of lab coat wearing researchers hosted their own modified re-enactment. This time, prisoners challenged the guards’ authority and caused the collapse of the prisoner-guard setup whereby they continued the experiment as a self-governing commune. This, too, fell apart only one day later and carved the path for a different kind of tyranny. A chilling highlight of their study was when a participant looked into the lens of a video camera and told researchers that a military regime had taken over and was now running the prison.

Lab Coats & Power

This theory that Zimbardo tinkered with the scales to mold the outcome of his study through subtle interventions, or non-interventions, is backboned by a statement from one of the volunteers who play a guard. John Mark reported that Zimbardo intentionally created tension amongst the groups through strategies like sleep deprivation. Mark asserts that the lab coat wearing professor had already decided how the experiment would play out. Therefore, he constructed situations to funnel the participants down that narrow alley that he had shaped.  

Another guard, Dave Eshelman, stated decades later that when the news broke about the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq, his immediate reaction was empathy with the guards. Eshelman told reporters, “This is so familiar to me. I knew exactly what was going on. I could picture myself in the middle of that and watching it spin out of control. When you have little or no supervision as to what you're doing, and no one steps in and says, ‘Hey, you can't do this,’ things just keep escalating.”

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Most tellingly, though, nearly 50 years after the original experiment, the Stanford library made numerous materials from the investigation available for analysis. This included audiotapes of the prisoners receiving instructions from Zimbardo and his team of lab coat wearing researchers. This new revelation makes it very clear that Zimbardo and his research team in charge of the prison used psychological tactics to persuade reluctant guards to adopt an aggressive style in their interactions with the helpless prisoners. 

For example, the day before the experiment began, an orientation was held for the guards. Here, expectations for hostility towards the prisoners were made clear to them. And so, the language of Zimbardo’s team clearly promoted and approved of the guards running amok.

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