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The Stanford Prison Experiment film: An Essential Teaching Tool

By Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

In teaching research ethics, there are a few “classic cases” that we offer students as examples of where human subject research went wrong: Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis, the Nazi medical experiments, Willowbrook Hepatitis Experiments, human radiation experiments, and (now) the Guatemala syphilis study, among others. When discussing social science examples, the two studies that are usually taught at Milgram’s obedience studies and Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment.

As an undergraduate at Stanford, my Psychology 101 teacher was Philip Zimbardo. He proudly talked to us about his famous experiment. The man was a great lecturer. In a classroom of 300 students, he held our attention as a master showman. At one point, he tried to hypnotize the entire class and had us complete a survey on how susceptible we were. If you scored high enough, you were invited to be part of his new study. The strange thing was we knew about the Prison Experiment and still, everyone wanted to be part of his study. I know a few people who lied on their survey just for the chance to participate. Even our exams were experiments. The first exam was taken alone; the second with a partner, and the third was your choice. This experiment was an attempt to show that people do better on exams when they work together (apology to my partner as I did worse on the group exam than on the single one). Zimbardo is one of those rare individuals who has intense charisma that draws people to him, and those people want to please him.

A new film about the Stanford experiment has just been released. Billy Crudup masterfully plays a sinister Phil Zimbardo. This was the experiment were 24 male college students (selected from 70 applicants) were recruited to take part in a simulated prison experiment. Who was a guard and who was a prisoner was decided by the flip of a coin. “Prisoners” were arrested at their house by police and incarcerated at Stanford County Prison. The prison was a hallway in the basement of Jordan Hall, home of the Psychology Department at Stanford University. Cells were research labs with the doors replaced. Bathroom facilities were down the hall and prisoners were escorted there under blindfold to avoid learning the layout of the building. One end of the hall had a cut out for a camera to observe the activities. Intercoms in the “cells” allowed researchers to hear the prisoner’s conversations.

Prisoners wore dresses (really sacks) with numbers on them, chains around their ankles, and stocking caps (to simulate having their heads shaved) in an attempt to dehumanize them. The guards were supposed to enforce the rules which started reasonably and them were ramped up to whatever whim the guards had. The guards were vicious. Early on, there was a prisoner revolt. This caused the guards to break the rebellion and up the ante. The guards became verbally abusive, forced exercise on the prisoners, hit them, stripped them naked, deprived them of sleep, took away their beds and blankets, forced them to simulate sex acts and emasculated them. Punishment was often meted out by time in “The Hole,” a small, dark closet.

One prisoner was released when he demanded it and threatened to call his lawyer. Another was released after a “parole hearing.” Two tried to escape but were foiled in their attempt and then punished. The prisoners believed that the experience was real and took on the psychology of being oppressed, depressed, and victimized. The abuse of the prisoners was so severe that the experiment ceased after 6 days even though it had been scheduled to last for 2 weeks. For more information, you can visit Zimbardo’s website which offers a great deal of detail.

Although I had read about this research and heard about it in much detail from Zimbardo himself, seeing it portrayed on the screen was a different experience. This was the most horrifying movie I have ever seen. To see people who one assumes were rational and nice become so embedded in this simulation that they forget who they were and took joy in causing humiliation and pain in others was more frightening than a slasher flick. The film keeps very close to Zimbardo’s description of the events.

This film should be required viewing in research ethics courses. It reads as more a documentary than a fiction piece and is more detailed, graphic, and obvious for its ethical flaws than other film representations of the classic cases.

Conducted in the days before IRBs and informed consent, the subjects in this study signed a contract. The prison rebellion seems to occur, at least in part, because the prisoners’ contract is violated. For example, the contract said the guards could not touch them but then a guard hits a prisoner with a bully stick with no repercussions. In several points in the film, there are references to the contract not permitting the behavior exhibited by the guards toward the prisoners. No matter how much the violence or humiliation was escalated no one stepped in. Regularly, any notion of informed consent was violated.

Today, human subjects research is designed to limit the risk to the subject and to provide a balance between risk and benefit. As portrayed in the film, the guards and researchers admit that those playing prisoners may have been harmed. An “interview” at the end of the film with a guard says that he was harmed by the knowledge of just how cruel he was capable of being. A flashcard near the end of the film says that no subject was harmed or suffered from long term affects. The only benefit to the subjects was $15 per day, quite a lot of money to a college student in 1971. In 2015 dollars, that would be $88.50 per day. That’s over $1,200 plus free room and board during the planned 2 weeks. Certainly that level of payment is coercive, severely testing an individual’s capacity to say no.

From the opening moments after the title card, the viewer is asked to question the ethics of Zimbardo. The scene opens in a bedroom where he is talking to his girlfriend, unhappy that she is teaching at UC Berkeley across the Bay. The film-Zimbardo says that she will be a great professor just as she was one of his best grad students. A professor dating a student and being intimate with him or her is certainly not permitted today though the standards in 1971 were probably more lax. But this was a film for a 2015 audience, and the director is giving an early message on how we are to view the main character. They were married in 1972 and still are today.

One question raised in the film is what was the scientific merit of this experiment? Why was it done? In some ways, Zimbardo was following up on the work of Milgram and the project changed his primary research focus. In one moment in the film, which is also in Zimbardo’s account, one of his colleagues (and former grad school roommate) sees Zimbardo sitting in a hallway chair awaiting an outside prison break from a released subject. The colleague asked, “Say, what’s the independent variable in this study?” Zimbardo could not answer and became angry: “The security of my men and the stability of my prison was at stake” and this individual was asking about the integrity of the research.

The anger is because Zimbardo lost all perspective. Like the subjects, he became a victim of thinking of the situation as real. Zimbardo played the role of the “superintendent” of prisons and is shown in the movie offering suggestions to the guards to control the prisoners and enforce the rules. When the guards became sadistic, Zimbardo did not talk to them, or stop them, but was curious to see what would happen. Even when a prisoner asks him to talk to the guards, film-Zimbardo lies to the prisoner saying he would, but then telling his warden that he wouldn’t. A researcher needs to maintain distance and a level of objectivity. Zimbardo was a character in his simulation and lost all perspective.

The experiment is finally ended when Zimbardo’s girlfriend, Dr. Christina Maslach, visits and serves as a member of the parole board. After hearing the appeals of the prisoner-subjects and seeing how Zimbardo, the research staff, and the guards were acting, she told Zimbardo that he had to end the experiment because he could not see the damage he was causing. In the film, the Zimbardo character continues the prison for a brief time, watching the escalation in behavior and then finally walks into the prison yard and announces, “The experiment is done….You can all leave.” The prisoners and guards alike do nothing because they have lost all sense that this experience was an experiment.

In the 44 years since this experiment, Zimbardo has had great success. He has published several books and after the revelation of Abu Ghraib, he touted himself as an expert on unfettered authority and the nature of evil. His very ethically and scientifically questionable experiment has led him to fame. In one of Zimbardo’s statements he said the value of his experiment was the insight it gave to Abu Ghraib. But that was decades in the future. How does one plan and design an experiment to prove something that has not happened yet?

Every few years a debate surfaces about whether research from the Nazi experiments should be used. The reason in favor is that it honors those who were harmed. The reason against is that it may in some way legitimize the vicious brutality. No one has asked this question about the Stanford Prison Experiment.

This film may be one of the most important contributions to helping students understand the need for human subject research regulation and safety. The film is hard to watch and is haunting, which is exactly why it is an excellent teaching tool.

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