Skip to main content

Why The Stanford Prison Experiment Matters To You


The Powerful Influence of Your Expectations


As an undergraduate psychology student, I studied the widely-taught “Stanford Prison Experiment.”

The experiment became a classic case study and a cultural phenomenon. A fictional movie of the same name, based upon true events and released by IFC Films, is due to be released later this week.

An understanding of this experiment is valuable to business leaders, career counselors, and employees alike.


The experiment was conducted at Stanford University in 1971, it was funded by the US Office of Naval Research and was of interest as an investigation into the cause of conflict between guards and prisoners.



Twenty-four students were randomly assigned roles of either prisoner and guard, in a simulated prison, situated in the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department building.

The participants were provided guidelines for behavior and adapted to their roles beyond expectation. “Guards” became brutal rulers who humiliated, and even tortured, some of the prisoners. “Prisoners” readily accepted psychological abuse and became subservient. The behaviors became so extreme that the entire experiment was halted after only six days, portions of the experiment were filmed and are publicly available.

The study has been often used to support the conclusion that ordinary people provided with authoritarian power will act in a cruel and ruthless manner.  It is “human nature.”



That conclusion is unsupported by the experiment. The Stanford experiment was flawed in both it’s design and execution. Participants were not “ordinary,” they were provided with rules that biased the course of their actions, they knew they were part of short-term experiment, project leaders participated and influenced the participants during the experiment, and participants knew they were under observation.

In the broadest sense, the experiment suggests that behavior conforms to preconceived expectations. In the words of Maria Konnikova, in her excellent piece in The New Yorker,
"All else being equal, we act as we think we’re expected to act—especially if that expectation comes from above.”

When business leaders set expectations, or limitations, their teams will perform as expected. If a manager presumes, correctly or incorrectly, that an associate or project will fail to meet their expectations they have created a “self-fulfilling prophecy” - a prediction that causes itself to be true.

This principle may also be used as a tool for positive outcome.  Treat your managers as leaders and they will tend to lead.  Set positive expectations for your teams and they will respond in kind.  Create a culture of communication and collaboration and connections will build themselves.

Managers should be aware of the powerful influence of their expectations. 

People are not lab rats, they will not always respond as expected. Nonetheless, authority sets the table: beware of sharp objects.


(c) David J. Katz, New York City


Popular posts from this blog

Taking Tips From a Younger Generation

Phyllis Korkki, an assignment editor at The New York Times, visited the garment district in Manhattan to interview designers as part of a story for the newspaper’s Snapchat account. Credit George Etheredge/The New York Times
What Could I Possibly Learn From A Mentor Half My Age? Plenty.

How on earth did I become an “older worker?”

It was only a few years ago, it seems, that I set out to climb the ladder in my chosen field. That field happens to be journalism, but it shares many attributes with countless other workplaces. For instance, back when I was one of the youngest people in the room, I was helped by experienced elders who taught me the ropes.

Now, shockingly, I’m one of the elders. And I’ve watched my industry undergo significant change. That’s why I recently went searching for a young mentor — yes, a younger colleague to mentor me.

Discounts, Discovery & Delight: 3Ds for Retail Success

In fashion and retail, Dopamine is the drug of choice. Technically, Dopamine is the neurotransmitter of “desire.” Dopamine leaps across synapses in our brain to control our reward and pleasure centers. It enables craving. It induces repeat behaviors. It makes us want more. Therefore, it is in our best interest to create products and experiences which induce the release of dopamine in our consumers. We could use some dopamine for ourselves, too. In our fashion and retail world, there are three primary stimuli, "3Ds," we can control to deliver hits of dopamine: Discounts, Discovery and Delight.

Beware of Wombats & Other Vampires

You are surrounded by dangerous WOMBATS. They’re everywhere. Sometimes they hide in plain sight, easy to spot. Other times they are well camouflaged, requiring heightened awareness to identify them. You need to stay alert, it’s important to avoid them. WOMBATs resemble ordinary, productive tasks. However, they are vampires for time and resources, weapons of mass distraction.WOMBATs are seductive. Working on a WOMBAT feels productive.WOMBATs are bad for your career.WOMBATs are bad for your business.WOMBATs infiltrate your work day (and your personal time). Strike them down.WOMBATs may be be ingrained in your company culture: “We’ve always done it that way…” WOMBAT Metamorphosis Alert: A task or project that wasproductive in the pastcanevolve into a WOMBAT in today's environment.Your comfort zone is populated with WOMBATs.More on comfort zones, here.Some people are WOMBATs in disguise. Stay away from them, they are vampire WOMBATs.If you don’t control your WOMBATs, your WOMBATs will…