2 Jun 2022


Group Behavior in the Stanford Prison Experiment

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Interactions between individuals have a significant impact on the role of individuals within society. The symbolic interaction perspective advances a micro-level theory that assesses how meaning can be established from these interactions. This paper assesses the Stanford prison experiment through the lens of the symbolic interaction perspective. 


In the 1970s, a group of researchers created an experiment that assessed effects of being prisoners or guards (McLeod 2017). This became known as the Stanford Prison Experiment in which researcher structured an imitation within the basement of Stanford University. Twenty-four undergraduate students to act as both prisoners and guards in the experiment (McLeod 2017). These students had not committed any crimes in their pasts, had no known psychological challenges, and had no significant diseases or illnesses. This prison was made of small cells, and every cell had three prisoners. 

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The participants of the experiment underwent random assignment to be either prisoners or guards. The prisoner group was expected to stay within the false prison for 24 hours each day while being studied (Le Texier 2019). Researchers then made an observation of their behavior through the use of cameras and microphones that could not be seen. The main results of the study were that interactions between the prisoners and guards were characterized by hostility and dehumanization, with many guards becoming violent and the prisoners exhibiting high degrees of discomfort. 


The symbolic interactionist perspective assesses individual and group meaning-making, which has its focus on human actions as opposed to large-scale social structures (Rohal 2019). It is based on phenomenology, which has its emphasis on the subjective meaning of reality. The main premise of this perspective is that the actions of individuals and interactions can be comprehended through the communication exchanged (Smith 2017). Within this approach, humans are viewed as action, as compared to being acted upon. There are three main principles of this perspective. The first principle is that the actions of human beings are based on the meaning associated with the action. This meaning are obtained from the social interactions that they are exposed to. The third principle state that social actions result from the integration of individualistic lines of actions. 

Symbolic interaction theory also advances a theory of the self, a looking glass self. The looking glass self is made up of three components; individuals engage in the imagination of their appearance to others, they also engage in the judgment of this appearance, and lastly, individuals engage in the development of our self through the judgment of others (Rohal 2019). As symbolic interactionists view meaning as the central aspect of interactions of human society, they usually tend to use qualitative, as opposed to quantitative methods. However, the most considerable limitation of this perspective is linked to its main proposal: it does not assess macro-social structures due to its focus on micro-level interactions. 


The Stanford experiment demonstrated the significant effect that societal frameworks have on the actions of participants that had no history of mental illnesses. Within a short time after the experiment was started, guards and prisoners began to settle into their new roles, with the guards engaging in the adoption of their roles quickly and easily. 

In this way, the theory of self could be seen. The guards started to act in a manner that they believe was expected of them based on institutional conditions such as what the prisoners expected and what they had seen (Smith 2017). This resulted in a dominant assertion of authority. As the experiment started, some guards started to take part in the harassment of prisoners. For example, prisoners were forced to wake up at 2.30 for one of the counts (Mcleod 2017). This acted as a channel of the familiarization of the prisoners with their numbers. More radically, they served as a platform through which guards could assert their control and power over their prisoners . While the guards were aware that it was only a mock prison and that they were not in any way, real guards. 

The prisoners also started adopting behaviors that had been seen in the prisoners. They discussed prison topics considerably, and even gossiped or reported news of other prisoners to the guard group (McLeod 2017). They began to view prison guidelines in a serious manner, as if they existed to be beneficial to the prisoners, and going against them would result in severe consequences. Some made the decision to team up with the guard group against other prisoners that did not follow the guideline. 

As the experiment continued, the relationships and interactions between both groups shifted, with a shift in one resulting in a shift in the behavior of the opposing group. T he prisoner group started to exhibit a greater level of dependency and powerlessness, while the guard group become even more disrespectful. This resulted in the treatment of prisoners with disdain while they demanded an even higher level of obedience from the prisoners. This resulted in the emotional breakdown of prisoners and a high level of aggression for the guards. 

According to the Thomas Theorem, individuals define and respond to situations as a result of their own experiences and hence, create the consequences that they expect (Goar 2015). The Stanford experiment was a clear reflection of the Thomas theorem as both the guards and the prisoners acted in ways they thought was expected of them. The guards became highly engaged in the behavior of the groups, that they lost their sense of self. They lost their identity and started acting in a way that they thought was expected of them in their group. On the other hand, the prisoners submitted to the guards as they learned that their actions had a little impact on what happened. The unpredictable decisions of the guards resulted in decreased responses by the prisoners. 


The symbol interactionism theory has its focus on the relationships among individuals within a society. The relationship and interactions between the guards and the prisoners established the meaning of the relevance of each group. The guard group established the power and dominance of the prisoner groups. In contrast, the impact of the actions of the guards resulted in the prisoners becoming overly dependent on the guard group. 


Goar, H. 2015. Thomas Theorem.  Research Starters: Sociology

Le Texier, Thibault. 2019. Debunking the Stanford Prison Experiment .  American Psychologist . 

McLeod, Saul. 2017. Stanford prison experiment.  Simply Psyschology

Rohall, David E. 2019.  Symbolic Interaction in Society . Rowman & Littlefield. 

Smith, Rachael B. 2017. Symbolic interaction theory.  The Encyclopedia of Juvenile Delinquency and Justice : 1-4. 

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StudyBounty. (2023, September 15). Group Behavior in the Stanford Prison Experiment.


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