The Stanford Prison Experiment is a docudrama about a well publicized research project conducted at Stanford University by psychologist Philip Zimbardo attempting to show that the environment in prison shapes guards’ and prisoners’ behavior more than their dispositions or past experiences. The film, directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez with script written by Tim Talbott, is based on Zimbardo’s 2007 book, The Lucifer Effect. Zimbardo saw this research as a follow-up to a study in the previous decade by another psychologist, Stanley Milgram, who showed that subjects would comply with an authority figure even to the point of increasing shocks to other subjects to lethal levels when instructed to do so by the research observer. (The person pressing the button was unaware he/she was not actually delivering a shock.) The point in both studies was that authority figures and the institutional environment wield a considerable degree of influence over an individual’s behavior.
Undergraduate students at Stanford were recruited for a psychological study of the effects of the prison environment on prisoners and guards and paid $15 a day for their participation. They were only superficially screened for psychological problems, criminal background, or medical problems. Nine students and one alternate were randomly assigned to be guards, and the same number for the prisoners.
To test his hypothesis of inherent characteristics of the participants determining behavior, Zimbardo instructed the guards to foster disorientation, depersonalization, and loss of identity. This was done by having them arrested in their homes, strip searched, put in dresses and stocking caps, given numbers for their names, and chains put around one of their ankles—all done in order to make the prisoners feel powerless. To reinforce this, guards were put in standard khaki garb, given mirrored sunglasses to avoid eye contact with the prisoners and wooden batons. They were instructed not to hit or harm the prisoners in any way.
The experiment was conducted in a building on campus, with offices converted into cells and using the hall for dining. The prisoners were to stay in their cells day and night for the duration, except when they were eating, and then they couldn’t talk to one another.
Early on, within a day or so, the guards—who were told they would be observed by research staff at all times—began using abusive tactics, including hitting and psychological torture. Even when this was brought to Zimbardo’s attention, he frequently chose not to intervene or he would make promises to the prisoners that he had no intention of keeping. Any act of rebellion on the part of the prisoners was met with harsh punishment, such as taking away their beds and giving them a bucket for toileting but not allowing it to be emptied.
In a short amount of time, some of the prisoners started to fall apart, and ask to leave the study. It was determined later that not only had 1/3 of the guards resorted to sadistic behaviors, Zimbardo acknowledged that even he had lost his objectivity. When an observer who came on the scene toward the end of the first week, deemed the experiment as unethical, Zimbardo was convinced to end the research on the sixth of the planned 14 days.
In retrospect, Zimbardo concluded that his expectation that the study would prove that, under certain conditions, even good people might behave badly was met. He subsequently testified as an expert witness in the court martial of one of the Abu Ghraib guards that the man’s behavior was a function of the system, as opposed to his being a “bad apple”, as the government claimed.
Criticisms of the Zimbardo study include a small sample size, a biased selection of the participants (all white middle class young men), and my own thought that the research staff and guards acting as if the “prisoners” had actually committed and been convicted of crimes, invalidates the study. Additionally, no personality measures were administered or background information of the participants was obtained. Without this information, the conclusion that it was the environment that brought out sadistic behavior is weak.
To me, this is a horrific film to watch; the cruelty and unjustified behavior on the part of the guards made me take a number of breaks during the screening (I watched it at home via a link). This made me question why the film was made at all; it’s an example of what not to do when people have power over others. There is a well-known, accepted principle in psychology that to improve people’s behavior it’s more effective to model good leadership than to show poor/bad/evil modeling.
Unfortunately, there is no explanation of the study results at the end of the film by Dr. Philip Zimbardo. I doubt the general public will be able to come away with a clear understanding of the rationale of the work or Zimbardo’s interpretation of it. This would have greatly enhanced the film, and provide give an illuminating picture of the Abu Graib phenomenon that would be helpful.
As far as the film, the actors do a fine job in depicting the characters in the study. Billy Crudup is especially noteworthy as Zibardo.