In 1971 at Stanford University, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo set up a 2 week experiment wherein Stanford students were recruited and paid $15 a day to either be a prisoner, or a prison guard. This ‘experiment’ was aimed to find whether inherent personality traits of prisoners or guards are the primary cause of the abusive behaviour that happens in prisons. The students were screened to exclude those with criminal backgrounds, questionable mental health, or medical problems. They were all deemed stable. Prisoners and guards were established by the flip of a coin.
Professor Zimbardo designed the experiment in order to maximize the depersonalization of participants – prisoners wore sac dresses and caps; guards wore uniforms and sunglasses. He imposed one rule: there was to be no physical assault of the prisoners. Very quickly, however, the participants’ behaviours exceeded beyond what Zimbardo could have imagined. Within hours, those in the role of guard were enforcing authoritarian rules to such an extent that some prisoners were subjected to psychological torture. The prisoners, disoriented, mostly passively accepted the abuse, and could be induced to taunt those that didn’t.
After just 36 hours, one ‘prisoner’ had to be released due to increasingly erratic behaviour. Fully a third of the ‘guards’ exhibited sadistic behaviour to the ‘prisoners’ who, keep in mind, were student volunteers just like themselves. They stripped them, degraded them, exerted them, bullied them, disturbed their sleep. It became an exercise in cruelty that the professor, reluctant to look away from his precious and costly little experiment, was forced to call off after just 6 days.
As a student of psychology, I poured over this data and watched a lot of the footage, fascinated and horrified. We don’t just study this in behavioural psychology, we also study it in ethics. Why? This ‘study’ would not pass muster today, not by a long shot, not by 87 prison yards stacked back to back. Zimbardo was not much of a scientist or researchers. The MOMENT his ‘experiment’ (and you see by my quotations how I long not to call it that) veered away from predicted boundaries and went straight toward DANGEROUS situations, he should have hit the brakes. Instead, he put kids in psychologically damaging situations. Kids who were making $15 a day and didn’t fully understand that they could walk away. FIVE of eighteen had to be removed early because of emotional trauma – and I remind you this lasted only 6 of the 14 intended days.
Luckily a grad student convinced Zimbardo that not only was he passively allowing these unethical acts (and HELLO – as psychologists, we’re supposed to HEAL not damage!), but that he himself had become absorbed by his role as the “superintendent” of the prison. He had lost all objectivity. This whole experiment was a waste – because he could not remain neutral, any observations that we can make are subjective and anecdotal at best (let alone impossible to reproduce!).
If this sounds too crazy to be true, well, I wish that was so. This wouldn’t be allowed to happen on a University campus anymore, but it sure as hell feels familiar if you look over what happened at Abu Ghraib with fresh eyes. If it sounds kind of like a movie, well, now it is.
It stars Billy Crudup (Big Fish) as the famed professor, Nelson Ellis (True Blood’s Lafayette) as an ex-con consultant, and a bunch of young men as the students: Ezra Miller (Trainwreck) as prisoner 8612, Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life) as 819 and Thomas Mann (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) as 416.
The movie, thankfully well-acted, is chilling, troubling, and thought-provoking. The cruelty is relentlessly one-note, so if you watch it, you’re going to want to pencil in some debriefing\discussing\come-down time immediately after, because the saddest part about it is that 45 years later, it’s just as relevant.