The Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment

The 1971 Stanford prison experiment is one of the most famous social psychology experiments in history. It’s one that I studied in a college course and discussed and wrote about in some detail at that time. Years later I read lead investigator Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect, which includes an account of the experiment, and I wrote about that—an essay considerably longer than most of these that I write about movies and books. I also saw, and wrote an essay about, the documentary The Human Behavior Experiments, which is about several famous psychology experiments including the Stanford prison experiment.

So while I’m not a Ph.D. in psychology or anything, I’m very familiar with the Stanford prison experiment, and I’ve thought about it and expressed myself about it far more than the average layman.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is not a documentary, but what I suppose would be classified as a “docudrama.” I gather it was based pretty closely on the records and film clips of the actual experiment, so it’s probably less fictional than even most movies of that genre.

In the experiment, Stanford students were recruited and offered a modest sum of money to participate in a simulated prison situation. They were randomly assigned to be either guards or prisoners. They were given some ground rules for the experiment—such as that the guards could not physically strike the prisoners as punishment or to enforce the rules, and that once the simulation was under way the participants were not to refer to it as an experiment but to always remain in character so to speak—and then they were pretty much left on their own, with the experimenters using cameras to view the developments remotely.

Put briefly, the import of the experiment, the reason it has become so famous, is that the subjects took on the stereotypical characteristics of prison guards and prisoners almost immediately and to a far greater degree than anticipated. The guards sought to control the prisoners by breaking them down psychologically through such techniques as de-individualization, ridicule, and humiliation—referring to them only by numbers, requiring them to sing and make fools of themselves in various ways, etc. Some of this had been included in their instructions, but once things got under way they went way beyond that initial set-up.

The prisoners, meanwhile, became passive, depressed, panicky, occasionally rebellious, and sometimes apt to bicker among themselves.

Though it’s ambiguous just what they thought at any given time, there is evidence that to at least some degree some of the participants became delusional about it even being an experiment, and believed or at least suspected that they’d been tricked into a situation where they were in fact being held against their will for some reason, and that, contrary to what they’d been assured when the simulation began, if they attempted to leave they would not be allowed to.

The sadism of the guards and the alarming emotional breakdown of some of the subjects led Zimbardo to halt the planned two week experiment after only six days. In talking and writing about it later, he has emphasized that the lesson to be learned from the experiment is just how much we are influenced by situational roles, that it isn’t just bad people who do bad things, but that just about anyone will do bad things in a situation where he or she somehow feels it’s expected or required. Zimbardo has used the example of the abuses at Abu Ghraib, for instance, to illustrate this point, contending that the Americans who humiliated and tortured people there were not outside the normal range at all in terms of how cruel or fanatical they were, but that it was the roles they were in that brought out that behavior in them, and would have brought out that behavior in most people.

I’m not going to say much more about the experiment itself, as I’ve written so much about it in various places that though I find it a fascinating subject, in a way it’s kind of stale to me. I don’t want to just repeat myself about it, nor am I inspired to think at length about it yet again and come up with some new thoughts to articulate about it. So I’ll mostly focus on how well or poorly I think the movie recreated the experiment, and what I thought and felt about the movie in general.

I found watching this movie to be an emotionally intense, and at times disconcerting experience. I remember feeling quite disturbed like that at times reading about the experiment. I didn’t know if the film version would capture the intangibles well enough to provoke a similar feeling, but at least for me it does.

For the most part the film feels realistic, in the sense that it’s believable that it’s closely based on the film clips and transcripts from the actual experiment. The one small exception to that has to do with Zimbardo’s role.

In The Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo confesses that in retrospect he realizes that he himself behaved poorly as a result of his role in the experiment, that just as the guards overlooked the humanity of the prisoners and discounted their suffering in order to do what they thought was expected of them, his capacity for empathy was reduced by getting caught up in wanting to fulfill the role of a very professional, detached academic conducting a potentially important experiment. He contends that had he not become so caught up in this ego-boosting opportunity to make history, he would have cut the experiment off well before he did.

I have mixed feelings about that, but anyway I think in the movie they use a certain amount of hyperbole to make this point. That is, we’re mostly talking about something internal to Zimbardo, and for that matter something that he only really came to a realization about some time later. But of course you can’t show his internal state, so in the film they have to have this internal turmoil manifested behaviorally.

The result is that he behaves just a little more like an ogre and acts just a little more obsessed with keeping the experiment going than I suspect was the case in real life. The conflicts he gets in about the experiment, such as with his girlfriend, are more explicit, with the issues articulated more fully for the benefit of the audience, than, again, I suspect they really were.

Still, most of the time this movie feels very real. While I would attribute a good portion of that to how closely the filmmakers decided to stick to the record of what actually happened, I think you also have to give credit to the actors. This is smoothly acted from start to finish. The vulnerable, scared kids seem like vulnerable, scared kids. The only reason this doesn’t seem even more like a documentary is the high level of the technical aspects of the filmmaking. That professionalism reminds you that you’re watching a Hollywood production, not documentary footage of an actual experiment.

We’re not told much about the individual participants’ lives before or after the experiment that might help us to understand why they responded the way they did. (Zimbardo would claim that it’s the circumstances that made them respond the way they did, but I’m sure he wouldn’t insist on so simplistic an explanation that their individual characteristics had absolutely no bearing on their behavior.) So there’s really little context of that kind.

I’m mostly OK with that. While I think being presented with more information about the guards and prisoners would have added some value to the film, to do it would have meant reducing the amount of time devoted to the experiment itself or making the film enormously long, and I’m not convinced the benefit would outweigh the cost.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is a movie worth seeing, thinking about, and talking about. Granted, that’s because the experiment is worth learning about, thinking about, and talking about, rather than because of something special about the movie. But the very fact that the movie doesn’t screw it up—that it successfully captures what makes the experiment interesting and important—is praiseworthy in itself.

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