In August, 1971, a Stanford University psychology professor named Philip Zimbardo placed an ad in a local paper seeking male college students willing to participate in a two-week research study for $15/day. After twenty-four applicants were selected, Zimbardo turned the basement of the psychology department into a faux prison with “cells” and a solitary confinement room (actually a janitor’s closet) known as “the hole.” Then he split the participants into two groups—“guards,” who were given uniforms, mirrored sunglasses and batons, and “prisoners,” who were stripped and put into dress-like smocks.
After the prisoners were sent to their cells, the experiment began.
Six days later it was abandoned.
Zimbardo, who made the mistake of crossing the line between observer and participant when he decided to act as the prison “superintendent,” shut the experiment down because it was beginning to spin violently out of control. Guards were abusing the prisoners physically and psychologically, demanding they simulate anal sex and telling some of them to “fuck the floor,” while some of the prisoners were experiencing serious mental stress, screaming things like, “I’m all fucked up inside” from their cells. But instead of being forgotten by history and regarded as some sort of bizarre research failure, the Stanford Prison Experiment, as it came to be called, entered the popular culture as one of the most famous, and controversial, psychological investigations of all time.
The story has now been recounted in “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” a feature film starring Billy Crudup as Zimbardo, which opens in selected cities on July 17. The movie, which won the screenwriting award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is unflinching, well-acted, and sometimes tough to watch. It does not shy away from what went wrong with the experiment, even as it attempts to explain what Zimbardo was going after in the first place.
“I wanted to carry the idea of the power of situational sources over individuals by creating an environment that was a system of control that would change people’s behavior,” Zimbardo told The Daily Beast. “Can situations overwhelm individual character in predictable ways?”
Zimbardo was following up on earlier experiments by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgrim, which asked participants to perform acts that violate their personal conscience.
Performed in 1961, during the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, the Milgram experiment was, says, Zimbardo today, “the first study that conscience could be overwhelmed by tyranny.”
But 1961 was a long way from 1971. In the intervening years, the anti-war, Black Power and feminist movements had altered the political landscape, campuses were hot beds of revolt, and drug usage among students was the new norm. “We didn’t expect the character transformation to be so rapid,” Zimbardo says of his experiment. “Virtually everyone of these kids were anti-war activists. None of them wanted to be a guard, and they were all hippies.”
And at least one of the guards, a student named Dave Eshelman, decided that the point of the whole affair was to prove that prisons were brutal and inhumane, and so were the guards in them. So after seeing the film “Cool Hand Luke,” he decided to channel the sadistic prison warden played by character actor Strother Martin. Which, in the minds of many, was one of the reasons the experiment ran off the rails.
“Subjects in an experiment, if you give them some clue of what they want, they’ll do it,” says Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray, who wrote an essay for Psychology Today about why Zimbardo’s experiment is not included in Gray’s introduction to psychology textbook.
“The demands were obvious in this case,” says Gray, who believes “this study is an embarrassment to the field. Nobody’s ever tried to replicate it, it hasn’t led to further research, and it just sits there as this isolated thing. But textbook authors love it, because it in some ways makes a great story.”
He’s not alone in his condemnation of the study. Stephen Reicher, of Scotland’s University of Saint Andrews, who, along with Alex Haslam, performed a similar study that was broadcast by the BBC as a documentary series called “The Experiment,” told The Daily Beast in an email interview that “most social psychologists view the Stanford study as a powerful illustration of the power of context, but neither view it as an experiment nor as a good theoretical account of human action.”
In other words, as a colleague of Zimbardo’s asks him in the film, “What’s the independent variable in your study? This is an experiment, not a simulation, right?”
Reicher feels Zimbardo’s work is controversial on several levels. The distress some of the prisoners began to feel is, he says, “completely unacceptable by contemporary ethical standards.” He also feels that the study’s conclusion—that “it is almost natural to slip into roles and play out the role requirements, however brutal those might be”—does not account for the fact that many of the participants resisted their roles, and “suggests that people cannot help what they do and therefore cannot be held accountable for it.”
Zimbardo’s work does have its champions—but only to a point. David Baker, Executive Director of the Center for the History of Psychology at the University of Akron, says the work involves “a sexy topic that most people don’t have experience with, and it’s the nature of power relationships, and the imbalance in power relationships.” He claims “you can always find fault with social science experiments, because you have to make analogues of real situations.” Given that, Baker adds, “[the experiment] is a pretty valiant effort with some pretty messy topics, and variables that are difficult to control. Social science is a messy endeavor, and people had concerns about the selection of subjects, experimenter bias, and Zimbardo was honest about that.”
He’s right. Zimbardo is the first to admit that when he chose to play the role of the superintendent of the prison, “I slipped out of the role of objective observer. In the role of prison super my concern was my prison and my guards. My other mistake was that Stanford had a human subjects research committee, and they should have insisted they monitor the study day by day. Now human subject committees are excessively conservative, because universities do not want to be sued.”
But Zimbardo also feels some of the criticism is unjust. In debriefing the participants, he said “we all did bad stuff,” noting that the good guards never intervened, and the prisoners never offered “emotional support to the prisoners who were breaking down.” And as far as Dave Eshelman is concerned, says Zimbardo, when he said “‘I never really got into it,’ that’s a lie. He got worse and worse day by day. He’s not playing a role; he’s inhabiting a role.”
And there’s this: The day after the experiment was terminated, George Jackson, a noted revolutionary and Black Panther Party member, was shot to death by guards at San Quentin Prison following an escape attempt.
Two weeks after that, prisoners at Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York rioted and seized control of the prison—an uprising that eventually led to state police taking back control of the facility, and the deaths of 43 people.
Suddenly, prisons and prisoners were a hot topic, and Zimbardo’s little experiment exploded into the news. “The study had a life of its own,” Zimbardo says today. “It was nothing I did, it was the links to what was happening in the ’70s.”
So, tainted or not, the study lives on. And if nothing else, the human rights violations against detainees in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison brought the experiment back into the public consciousness (Zimbardo even testified at the trial of one of the guards, Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick).
“Some things are kind of transcendent,” says the University of Akron’s Baker, “and this notion of imbalance in power relationships and situational behavior, those are big things. The dynamic of putting average people in bad barrels, that means bad things are gonna happen. Look at Abu Ghraib. It did look like the Stanford Prison Experiment, except much worse. Zimbardo offered us a way to look at power imbalance.”
Zimbardo thinks it’s simpler than that. When asked what people will be thinking at the end of the film based on his work, he says: “You really end up wondering what kind of guard would I be? What kind of prisoner would I be?”