Watch the New Trailer for the Stanford Prison Experiment Film, Soon in Theaters Near You

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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Watch Footage from the Psy­chol­o­gy Exper­i­ment That Shocked the World: Milgram’s Obe­di­ence Study (1961)

The Lit­tle Albert Exper­i­ment: The Per­verse 1920 Study That Made a Baby Afraid of San­ta Claus & Bun­nies

Free Online Psy­chol­o­gy Cours­es

How To Think Like a Psy­chol­o­gist: A Free Online Course from Stan­ford

Her­mann Rorschach’s Orig­i­nal Rorschach Test: What Do You See? (1921)


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 and/or watch his films here.

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