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What were the power struggles in the Stanford Prison Experiment?

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In the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, social psychologists organized a project intended to evaluate inequalities of power. The project head was a Stanford University psychology professor, Philip Zimbardo, and the rest of the participants were college students. The experiment was set up to imitate a prison, with Zimbardo himself as the "superintendent." Thus, one level of power imbalance, between professor and students, was embedded into the experiment's structure of superintendent and "guards" and "prisoners," the two categories the students occupied. The main struggle was between guards and prisoners. The experiment was aimed to reveal social dimensions of power imbalance.

The prison simulation lasted only a week, however, as many participants got overly involved. Some of those playing guards became so abusive that the "prisoners" refused to continue, or even melted down, and left the experiment after only two days. Other "prisoners" responded with extreme passivity, which apparently encouraged further abuse. The excesses have since often been called psychological torture. These poor results prompted the organizers to call a halt.

In addition to the power struggles during the experiment, examining the whole framework sheds a light on faculty power excesses. Zimbardo's research design and the methods he used are said to have exploited that power. The abusive guards reported later that he had encouraged the harsh behavior to skew the findings in the direction he had projected. More recently, student participants have also claimed they falsified their breakdowns.

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