The Stanford Prison Experiment – Unexpected Lessons for Mediation

Often misunderstood as something akin to “Lord of the Flies” in a psychology lab, Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo's "Stanford Prison Experiment" (a movie version of which is due for release on July 17, 2015) actually contains powerful lessons for negotiation and conflict resolution.

The Experiment


The 1971 study, which has become one of the most (in)famous in the psychology literature, was designed to understand the development of norms and the effects of roles, labels, and social expectations.


Professor Zimbardo and his colleagues recruited 24 male college students for a two-week study on the “psychology of imprisonment”: 12 to role play prisoners and 12 to role play guards. Assignment to the roles of prisoner or guard was random, and none of the students had any prior record of criminal arrests, medical conditions, or psychological disorders. Within just a few days, the “guards” began to implement authoritarian measures and subjected some of the “prisoners” to psychological abuse. Many of the prisoners passively accepted this abuse and, at the request of the guards, even harassed other prisoners who attempted to prevent it. After only six days, the simulation had become so real, and the guards so abusive, that the experiment had to be terminated.

Expectations Drive Behavior

There are many questions surrounding the validity of the study, which has been interpreted to show that we have a great capacity for evil; a finding that is underlined daily as the news headlines bring us stories of police brutality, violent riots, beheadings, and other horrific events. But more importantly, the Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrates that we tend to conform our behavior to preconceived expectations. All else being equal, we behave the way we believe we are expected to behave, especially if the expectation comes from someone in a position of authority.

Lessons for Mediation

How is this relevant to mediation? As a mediator, if I can create positive expectations – of productive and protected interactions with the mediator, a constructive dialogue with the other side, and a favorable outcome – mediation participants are more likely to conform their behavior to those expectations.

This is one of the reasons why I routinely conduct pre-mediation conferences with each side, either in person or by phone. It is my role as the mediator to listen to and understand the stories of the parties and their attorneys, to reality test in order to allow the parties to determine their best course of action, and ultimately, to help the parties construct mutually beneficial (or at least mutually acceptable) solutions despite multiple versions of the truth and multiple interpretations of the law. Pre-mediation conferences give me an opportunity to build trust and rapport from the very first conversation, thereby shaping the expectations of the participants, their hopes for a good outcome, and thus the extent of their willingness to negotiate in good faith.

Equally importantly, attorneys almost always hold a position of relative authority with respect to their clients. When attorneys take the time to 

  • have an in-depth conversation with the client to uncover the client's goals and underlying interests,
  • discover the client's concerns and the reasons for those concerns, and
  • candidly assess the strengths and weaknesses of the case prior to mediation,

they have the power to define the client's expectations and elicit behavior that will conform to those expectations.

And when those attorneys are then willing to have a candid conversation with me about their case, it allows me to assist them most effectively by constructing a process and engaging in a conversation with all sides that is conducive to the achievement of their goals.

“Getting It Done”

The psychological underpinnings of our behavior are often subconscious. But by knowing the case and approaching the mediation with a firm but collaborative mindset, attorneys, clients and mediators can work together to consciously create a framework for mediation that will ultimately "get the deal done".

(Read this and other blog posts on my website at www.PhilipMediation.com/blog, and/or subscribe to my newsletter for monthly updates.)

(Credits: Thank you to Cristin Fenzel for acting as my editor for this article.)

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