In 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo and a team of researchers conducted a study to examine the effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard 1.
Zimbardo wanted to know if the brutality reported among American prison guards was due to their personalities or if it had more to do with the jail environment.
To do that, he and his team built a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford University psychology building and recruited 21 college students.
These participants were split up into two groups consisting of 10 prisoners and 11 guards.
Zimbardo reasoned that if the subjects turned out to behave non-aggressively, this would indicate that real life prison brutality had to do with sadistic personalities of the guards.
If the participants behaved aggressively, this would support the idea that brutality has more to do with the prison environment.
The First Day of the Experiment
As the experiment began, everything was designed to be as lifelike as possible. The “prisoners” were treated like real criminals.
Without warning, they were arrested in their homes and taken to the police station. They were photographed, fingerprinted and ‘booked.’
They were then blindfolded and taken to the mock prison at Stanford. At arrival, the prisoners were stripped naked, deloused, and had all their personal possessions taken from them.
From this point forward, they were only allowed to wear prison clothes and refer to themselves and fellow prisoners by the ID number on their clothes.
Meanwhile, the subjects who had been selected as guards were dressed in uniforms, sunglasses, a whistle around their neck, and a baton.
The guards were instructed to do “whatever they thought was necessary to maintain law and order in the prison and to command the respect of the prisoners.” No violence was permitted.
Zimbardo himself took the role of the prison warden.
The Experiment Gets Out of Hand
If you’ve heard about the Stanford Prison experiment 1 or seen the movie based on it 2 you know that it didn’t end well.
After only two days, the prisoners tore off their ID numbers and barricaded themselves inside their cells by putting their beds against the doors.
The guards retaliated by shooting fire extinguisher to force the prisoners to open the doors.
Then they broke into the cells, stripped the prisoners naked, and removed their beds.
After this incident, the harassments escalated as the guards started intimidating the prisoners.
“It’s terrible what you are doing to these boys!”
36 hours into the experiment, one of the prisoners had to be released because of “uncontrollable screaming, crying, and anger.”
After few more days, three other participants were removed from the experiment as they were showing “disturbing signs of emotional disorders.”
When psychologist Christina Maslach was brought into the prison to conduct interviews with the participants, she strongly objected to the experiment.
She screamed at Zimbardo: “It’s terrible what you are doing to these boys!”
Maslach was the first person, out of more than 50 outsiders who had seen the prison, to question its morality.
The experiment was meant to last two weeks but was terminated on day 6.
Zimbardo later reflected: “It wasn’t until much later that I realized how far into my prison role I was at that point — that I was thinking like a prison superintendent rather than a research psychologist“.3
Change Your Clothes, Change Your Behavior
I write a lot about how easily we are influenced by our surroundings.
The Stanford Prison Experiment shows that even the clothes you wear can be a big driver of behavior.
A fascinating (but a lot less dramatic) study on this topic divided people into two groups:
- Group A wore their normal clothes.
- Group B wore their normal clothes and lab coats.
When these groups did tests of mental agility, the group wearing lab coats made about half as many mistakes as the other group.
In a similar experiment where both groups wore lab coats:
- Group A was told they were wearing painter’s smocks.
- Group B was told they were wearing doctor’s coats.
In this study, the group wearing doctor’s coats scored significantly higher on brain games compared to the painter’s clothes group.
Researchers call this weird phenomenon ‘enclothed cognition’4.
The Curios Effects of Enclothed Cognition
Enclothed Cognition is defined as “the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes.“
Scientists believe that enclothed cognition occurs because of the symbolic meaning of the clothes as well as the physical experience of wearing them.
Dress as a prisoner, and you’ll become submissive. Dress like a prison guard, and you’ll become assertive and aggressive.
Put on a painter’s smock, and you’ll become more artistic. Wear a doctor’s coat, and it will make you more careful and attentive (which helps you score better on brain games).
Whatever you wear, you’ll start to embody the attributes you associate with that type of clothing.
And this translates into actual changes in your behavior and performance.
Become Who You Want to Be by Changing Your Clothes
Who do you want to become? What skills do you want to develop? What qualities would you like to possess?
No matter what your answers are, there’s no reason to wait until you’ve “arrived” to start dressing like the person you want to be.
Instead, find the people who embody the skills and qualities you want right now and literally walk a mile in their shoes.
(Well, not their shoes. And not exactly one mile. I wouldn’t want to set in motion a wave of shoe stealing mile-walkers. But I’m pretty sure you get the idea.)
What I’m getting to is this: Dress like the person you want to become and your behaviors will naturally follow.
Obviously, the clothes you wear won’t magically create the skills and traits you want. But they will prime your brain to be more disciplined in developing them.
So, let’s get dressed for success!5
“You must be the person you have never had the courage to be. Gradually, you will discover that you are that person, but until you can see this clearly, you must pretend and invent.”
– Paulo Coelho