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Qwiz5 Quizbowl Essentials: Stanford Prison Experiment

Updated: Sep 17, 2019

In 1971, Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo ran an experiment that explored perceived power. He converted the basement of Jordan Hall (the psychology building) into a makeshift prison and then assigned students to take on the roles of either prisoners or guards. The experiment quickly got out of hand as the guards, emboldened by their position, began abusing the prisoners.

A photograph of "John Wayne" from the Stanford Prison Experiment. Part of the Qwiz5 series by Qwiz Quizbowl Camp, written to help quiz bowl teams power more tossups!

By analyzing questions, you can see patterns emerge, patterns that will help you answer more tossups. Qwiz5 is all about those patterns. In each installment of Qwiz5, we take an answer line and look at its five most common clues. Here we explore five clues that will help you answer a tossup on the Stanford Prison Experiment.


Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo designed the Stanford Prison Experiment and assumed the role of Superintendent of the prison. In addition to the Stanford Prison Experiment, he founded the Shyness Clinic and used abandoned cars to research Broken Window Theory.


Zimbardo assigned subjects the roles of either prisoners or guards. Subjects were assigned randomly (by a coin toss). Prisoners were degraded, routinely blindfolded, frequently forced to strip naked, and referred to only by a number. The guards were given khaki uniforms and mirrored sunglasses.


The leader of the guards was a man named David Eshelman who assumed the role of warden. He earned the nickname John Wayne and later said that he modeled his behavior on that of the warden played by actor Strother Martin in the movie Cool Hand Luke. His behavior became increasingly sadistic throughout the experiment.


Christina Maslach was Zimbardo’s girlfriend (and later wife) who was a researcher on the project. Fearing that the experiment had gotten out of hand after she noticed that John Wayne had started to speak with a fake southern accent (like Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke), she convinced Zimbardo to stop the experiment early (after only six days).


Zimbardo wrote a book about the Stanford Prison Experiment, entitled The Lucifer Effect. In it, he argues that societal factors lead to otherwise moral people behaving in immoral ways. He spends a large part of the book comparing the Stanford Prison Experiment to the Abu Ghraib prison abuses in Iraq.


Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:

* Philip Zimbardo has a website devoted to the Stanford Prison Experiment with photos, videos, and a lot of great information.

* This article from The New Yorker discusses the experiment.

* NPR interviewed Philip Zimbardo about the Stanford Prison Experiment. You can listen to it below:

* Watch the trailer for the 2015 film adaptation of the Stanford Prison Experiment here:


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