Role Identities in the Stanford Prison Experiment

Role identities are concepts of the self in different roles. Each participant in the study took on a role identity for their assigned position, whether it was guard or prisoner, that role was taken on and lived out to the fullest. The participants that took place in the study were all of a similar age in a university degree program, predominantly white, all male, and all middle class. Demographics always affect dynamics so of course they affected that as well as the results. Any human is susceptible to altered identity and behavior based on assigned roles, but it is unbelievable to think that a major shift in demographics would not impact the results in some way. For instance, including women might behave differently than the men did. People of different religions might have chosen different actions. People from a different cultural background may respond differently. There are all kinds of ways things could be affected.

There was a major resocialization for the participants of the Stanford Prison Experiment. The prisoners were stripped, searched, deloused, given a smock, a new number to be known by instead of a name, and put through an entire process to help “resocialize” them as prisoners. Guards were given no training but given a uniform, a whistle, and a billy club. Every participant was resocialized into their role by removing every ounce of their previous identity possible and resocialized physically and mentally into their new role through dress, name (or lack of), schedule, routine, and rules. The guards and prisoners adapted. Some adapted more poorly than others, to the point of dropping out of the study. The participants resocialized in ways some never would have imagined and embodied their new roles quite quickly.

I think the Stanford Prison Experiment simulates a real-world experience very well. Particularly having worked in jails, I have seen what inmates go through and some unfortunate actions from guards. People definitely can and do respond to role identity and the power of those roles can be very strong. It tells us that people can be drastically affected by the power and “duty” given to them. There are limitations as this was a very small number of people and a very limited amount of time.

There were many ethical standards discussed, and many violated. The Stanford Prison Experiment lacked fully informed consent by participants, they did not consent to being “arrested” at their homes, the participants, particularly the prisoners, were not protected from psychological harm, and experienced great humiliation and distress. From a research perspective, to improve ethical standards it could have included complete consent and discussed the possibilities even though they could not have predicted exactly what would happen. They also could have given the guards some guidelines to some extent as to what they could and could not do, although they would not have gained all the information they did.

I agree with the Lucifer effect interpretation. There are few other interpretations that disagree with this stance and the Lucifer effect explains why people who were “normal” before coming into the Stanford Prison Experiment ended up doing such unseemly things to one another. While the Stanford Prison Experiment did shed light on the human ability to change roles and commit acts against their fellow man particularly in situations of blind submission to authority, there are still questions to be answered regarding individuals, relationships, and systems in relation to the Lucifer effect.


DeLamater, John D., and Meyers, Daniel J., and Collett, Jessica. (2014). Social Psychology, 8th edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. ISBN-13: 9780813349503

Zimbardo, P. G. (2017). On the ethics of intervention in human psychological research: With special reference to the Stanford prison experiment. Cognition,().

Zimbardo, P. G., Haney, C., Banks, W. C., & Jaffe, D. (1971). Stanford prison experiment. Zimbardo, Incorporated.

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