Princeton Prison Experiment
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The Princeton Prison Experiment was a study that sought to measure the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. The experiment was conducted in 1972 by a team of researchers led by Psychology Professor Palmer Wilson at Princeton University. Sixty-four undergraduates were recruited from the campus’s College Republicans chapter and promised unlimited supplies of American flags and Committee to Reelect the President (CREEP) paraphernalia in exchange for performing the roles necessary to simulate an active maximum-control prison in what had been an off-campus undergraduate housing complex dedicated to the care of foreign students.
Professor Wilson informed all participants during an introductory seminar that, as a result of how prison operations proceeded, “there shall be winners and there shall be losers.” Some students would be assigned the roles of prisoners, and others would serve as guards. Prisoners could, through “good behavior” (a term that was never defined), be granted early release from the experiment. Guards would receive some unspecified reward, vaguely hinted at being a cash reward, for ensuring prisoners maintained order. “This can be a win-win situation,” Wilson said.
When “guards” arrived the next morning, they received a complimentary breakfast of donuts and coffee before being given official-looking prison uniforms complete with dulled silver badges, hand-cuffs, and black jacks. No further instruction was given to this initial batch of guards.
Prisoners were ushered into their barred cells after first having been strip-searched. Their uniforms, owing to budgetary constraints, consisted of yellowed tee shirts and pairs of long johns bottoms.
During the study’s first hour, Professor Wilson repeatedly suggested to the guards that certain prisoners were “acting up.” At the time, “acting up” was defined as watching television with volume controls set slightly above an un-defined “allowable limit.” Yet when guards arrived to investigate, they found no televisions in the prisoners’ cells.
When guards reported these findings, Wilson responded, “Ahh. Those sneaky bastards. They must have hid their televisions on you. You ought to do something about that.”
Throughout the study’s first night, guards were repeatedly told that certain prisoners were watching television loudly. Many of the study participants later told interviewers that the prisoners had been caught watching “damn loud” re-runs of a Soupy Sales’ children’s’ puppet show. Yet, though accounts vary, it is thought that not a single guard actually witnessed prisoners watching Sales, loud or not. However, at approximately 7:54 p.m. (less than eight hours into the study), the first incidence of guard-on-prisoner violence was reported. Within an hour of that first act, other guards began mistreating prisoners. In one instance, a prisoner’s teeth were knocked out. Blackjacks were administered on skulls. Bones were crushed. Though not a single television was located during the guards’ sorties into prisoner cells, loud television viewing was cited as the rationale for these beatings.
By the following morning, guards boasted of their violent acts. Wilson congratulated each of the guards personally, bestowing hearty pats on their backs and an all-you-can-eat buffet stocked with steak, three varieties of eggs (scrambled, sunny-side up, and hard-boiled), hash browns, sausage links, thick-sliced maple-smoked bacon, and buttermilk biscuits that Wilson claimed to have whisked up himself.
“We thought we were in seventh heaven,” said one of the guards who, for fear of indictment, spoke to a New York Times reporter only after being guaranteed his identity would remain anonymous. “I mean, who serves up USDA Prime porterhouse steaks for breakfast? He goes around the room, shaking our hands, telling us how proud he is of us for keeping the bastards down. And then there’s Danishes, donuts, and honey-coated bear claws on top of all that. What’s not to like?”
Meanwhile, the battered prisoners limped into in the dorm’s unfinished cement block basement where, on a pine table, cold bagels and single-serve boxes of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes awaited their nutritional needs. There were no tables, no chairs on which the prisoners could sit, and they ate standing up. Many had acquired crutches from the prison’s ersatz infirmary as a result of the wounds they had sustained at the hands of the guards.
Wilson strode into the room just before the prisoners were to be escorted back to their cells. Several had asked permission to leave the experiment on the grounds that the possibility of violent acts being perpetrated upon them had not been disclosed, yet Wilson summarily rejected their pleas.
“All the guards bitch about you prisoners taunting them with your televisions, blaring them as loud as can be. This isn’t an entertainment center lounge! It’s a prison! The guards don’t have many rules, but they will not abide by excessive television-watching. What did you expect will happen when you refuse to turn off your televisions when the guards tell you to? Did you expect the guards would stand idly by while you flout their authority?”
The prisoners protested. Save for the bare mattresses on the floors and the plastic Rubbermaid waste baskets which served as lavatories, their cells were unfurnished. “We have no televisions!”
Tilting his head, Wilson brought his hands to his chin. “That’s not what the guards tell me. Maybe you all don’t have televisions, but they tell me at least some of you do.”
The prisoners eyed each other with suspicion. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Wilson said. “And I can guarantee you that if the ones who have televisions stop using them, I’m personally guarantee that the guards will stop indiscriminately abusing everyone.”
Up to this point, as many have observed, the Princeton Prison Experiment was much like the earlier and more famous Stanford Prison Experiment. Both guards and prisoners were admirably inhabiting the roles assigned them. Guards predictably mistreated prisoners under very loose supervisory conditions.
Yet during the study’s second afternoon, Professor Wilson re-assigned some of those who had been guards to become prisoners, while switching some prisoners to guard duty. In all, twelve of the sixty-four participants had their roles reversed on that second afternoon.
Wilson theorized that the switch would result in kinder, more sympathetic care of prisoners by guard staff. The new guards, it was thought, would dispel rumors of prisoner television viewing practices (loud or otherwise), and, since they had just been prisoners themselves, be more sympathetic to the plight of prisoners. Other guards, it was thought, would be less likely to inflict violence on prisoners who had once served alongside them as guards.
However, guard-on-prisoner violence escalated on that second day, as it did in each of the subsequent three days, when additional role reversals were made. Though Wilson believed that by the third day all participants realized that there were no televisions in the prisoners’ cells, excessive television volume was the only rationale ever entered onto the forms that guards were required to file after each instance of prisoner abuse.
The Princeton Prisoner Experiment ended on August 23, 1972, only four days after it began. All participants were ushered into a previously unseen basement room in the “prison” complex. By this point, all had served as “guards” and had committed at least one atrocity or erstwhile act of violence. Many were nervous. They had been told that the study would last for seven days.
“Where are we going? What are we doing?” the participants asked as they were led into the basement.
Wilson turned on a sixteen-inch black-and-white television. One of the participants who had broken his leg as a prisoner, and broke another’s leg as a guard, remembered aloud that President Nixon would be delivering his nomination acceptance speech to the year’s Republican National Convention that night. Upon hearing this, great cheers arose within that basement room, yet when the picture on the television became fixed, what they saw was not Richard Nixon or the Republican National Convention, but a grown man with a toothy-but-goofy smile. On that man’s right hand was an Elsie-the-Cow cloth hand puppet.
“Who’s that?” someone asked.
Wilson identified the puppeteer as Soupy Sales, the Los Angeles-based entertainer whom many suspected “prisoners” had been watching on television throughout their stay.
Great groans circulated throughout the assembled participants. Someone asked whether the television station could be switched to the Nixon speech.
“No,” Wilson responded. He clicked off the television set. “You’ve been granted time-off for good behavior.”
Professor Wilson was loath to publicize the experiment for fear of liability issues. Participants had repeatedly effected physical violence on one another and it was feared that thorny legal issues would arise should word leak of what had happened. Consequently, Wilson’s initial findings were not published until 1984, when an article appeared in Clinical Thuggery. Wilson’s findings were as follows:
- Status Anxiety was the motivating force for violence during the study’s second through fourth days. Once it became obvious that participants’ roles could and would be reversed, participants took advantage of the opportunities afforded to them as guards to exert the maximum violence possible precisely because they judged that such opportunities would not be forever theirs. As Wilson famously said,
- “Everyone wanted to get at it when the going got good. And when they became prisoners again and the going got bad, that’s what paramedics are for.”
- Extrapolating from these findings, Wilson issued the now-controversial statement that,
- “A permanent underclass stands a better chance of being treated well than a variable underclass in constant flux.”
On the surface, this makes sense if one accepts the proposition that prison violence stemmed from status anxiety. Permanently fixing societal roles would remove status anxiety. America, where in myth if not reality the possibility exists for the tumble of those in higher socioeconomic classes into lower classes (concomitant with the possible rise of lower class citizens into higher spheres, usurping the wealth and power from those tumbling down) is therefore an inherently violence-prone society.
- As Wilson said, “Horatio Alger at his apogee is one nasty motherfucker.”
Law-and-order politicians such as Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich embraced the Wilson findings, finding in them the pseudo-intellectual support necessary enact a number of tax, zoning, and social welfare policies designed to rigidify existing social orders, condemning those stuck in the lowest classes to permanent underclass status.
Despite the lag in publishing the findings, thorny legal issues arose for Wilson. A woman whose hair had been scorched off during a particularly zealous beating brought a civil suit against him for creating conditions conducive to atrocity. However, a New Jersey circuit court judge ruled the ill-defined instructions Wilson gave to study participants were not explicit enough to warrant his culpability for whatever subsequent acts of violence were occasioned on “prisoners.”
This legal ruling, authorizing a nod nod wink wink approach to management practices as a means of avoiding liability issues, is perhaps the study’s most lasting contribution to contemporary life.
Much has been made of the fact that Wilson, Phillip Zimbardo (Stanford Prison Experiment) and Stanley Milgram (Milgram/Yale Electrocution Experiment) were classmates at the James Monroe High School in the Bronx, NY.
Iggy Pop claims that Wilson’s study inspired his classic punk song, “Eat or Be Eaten” (on 1982’s Zombie Birdhouse lp). However, though a full accounting of all study participants has never been released, it is unlikely that any “prisoners” were actually eaten. Beaten, yes—but not eaten, the “b” of the word being so important.
Palmer Wilson remains a largely misconstrued figure in the public imagination, where, in certain quarters, he is appraised as a hero, a badass unafraid to assail prisoners and malcontents in order to, presumably, guarantee public tranquility. Tea Party activists unsuccessfully sought to put Palmer Wilson’s name forward for Presidential nomination at the 2012 Republican National Convention.
“He may be an asshole, but he’s our kind of asshole,” Rufus Clark, a delegate to the Convention from the great state of Georgia, told a USA Today reporter. Clark, who also tried to insert a plank into the party platform calling for Guantanamo Bay statehood, is currently leading an effort to petition the United States Postal Service (USPS) to issue a Forever postage stamp in Wilson’s honor.
By 2012 however, Wilson was living in exile in Guatemala, a fugitive awaiting extradition to face tax fraud charges unrelated to the Princeton Prison Experiment. On August 30, 2012, he laid down on the dirt floor of a sweltering jungle hut and jammed a sawed-off shotgun loaded with birdshot to his gut. He did not survive the encounter.
Professionally discredited, he died nearly penniless.
A blood-soaked suicide note was found taped to Wilson’s neck asking for a simple tombstone to mark his place of “eternal repose.” On that tombstone, he asked that the words “violence begets violence” be carved.
Wilson’s heirs chose not to honor that request. Instead, Wilson’s body was cremated and, on an unspecified November day, his family gathered in Washington, DC to spread his ashes over the grounds of the US Capitol. Depending on who you believe, flowers bloomed wherever his ashes landed on the earth. That, or the ground became forever salted.
This piece was written while in residency at The MacDowell Colony.