In 1971, Stanford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo undertook a study to determine whether situations determine behavior or whether a person’s disposition leads to behavior regardless of their situation. As seen in the above trailer for the Stanford Prison Experiment, a new film adaptation of Zimbardo’s controversial study, it was explained thusly: people acted like prisoners--lashing out at authority, angry, maladjusted--purely by dint of being put in prisons. And people abused their authority when put in the position of authority. The hypothesis had its basis in the past: the action of Nazi guards at the concentration camps. The results have ramifications through to the present: witness the confessions of the guards who tortured inmates in Abu Ghraib.
The trailer plays like a psychological thriller, but so far it looks true to the record. Prof. Zimbardo--having just earned tenure at Stanford (and played in the film by Billy Crudup)--chose 24 healthy student subjects and randomly assigned them either the role of guard or of prisoner. The Psychology Department’s basement was turned into a mock prison, with holding cells, guard rooms, solitary confinement, and an exercise yard. Cameras recorded all that went on, observed by Zimbardo and his crew. The “guards” could come and go according to shifts, but the “prisoners” could not. While the “guards” could not use physical force on the “prisoners,” they could use as many psychological tactics as possible to break the will of their fellow students. However, the “prisoners” were not told exactly what would happen to them. When, on the first day, the "prisoners" were “arrested” in the morning, stripped, searched, shaved and deloused, they were already in a state of shock. An early documentary exists on the experiment and its results here:
Suffice it to say (and you may have seen this coming) the student guards really got into their roles, and the “prisoners” rebelled. All the while Prof. Zimbardo wanted to keep going for the planned one to two weeks. Only because of the objections of Christina Maslach, a graduate student and Prof. Zimbardo’s girlfriend, did the group abandon the study after six increasingly frightening days. (Proving as well that Prof. Zimbardo was affected by the experiment in ways similar to his subjects, as he was unable to initially stop something out of control.)
The study was funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research to “study antisocial behavior.” The student subjects were paid $15 a day for their help and half quit the experiment before it was finished. All of the guards stayed on. As detailed in the official FAQ on the study, none of the students showed any lasting trauma, though Prof. Zimbardo said:
"I was guilty of the sin of omission -- the evil of inaction -- of not providing adequate oversight and surveillance when it was required... the findings came at the expense of human suffering. I am sorry for that and to this day apologize for contributing to this inhumanity."
The experiment is now used in psychology textbooks as an example of the “psychology of imprisonment.” Prof. Zimbardo turned his science to helping people, looking at promoting heroism in daily life, helping veterans normalize into social life, working with shy people, and, coming full circle, testifying during the court martial of Sgt. Ivan “Chip” Frederick, who was charged with crimes during his time at Abu Ghraib. Zimbardo has since retired and recently advised on the upcoming film. Christina Maslach later married Prof. Zimbardo and is currently Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at the University of California, Berkeley.
And if Prof. Zimbardo’s experiment sounds a bit like Stanley Milgram's 1961 experiment in obedience to authority, well, it’s no coincidence. Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo were high school friends.
However, there's some interesting differences. For one, the "victims" of Milgram's experiment were acting the electric shocks they supposedly received. Despite that level of fakery, Milgram was denied tenure at Harvard. The City University of New York Graduate Center, on the other hand, knew a psychology superstar when they saw one and gave him tenure.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.