Skip to main content

'It's Painful': Dr. Philip Zimbardo Revisits the Stanford Prison Experiment

A candid interview with one of psychology's most controversial figures.
Dr. Philip Zimbardo, played by Billy Crudup. (Photo: IFC Films)

Dr. Philip Zimbardo, played by Billy Crudup. (Photo: IFC Films)

It's not uncommon for Hollywood to ask researchers to consult on their most intellectually ambitious screenplays. It's pretty rare, though, when the dramaturg humming around the set is also one of the main characters in the movie.

Such is the case for Dr. Philip Zimbardo, the principal consultant for The Stanford Prison Experiment, a new film from director Kyle Alvarez in which Zimbardo proves a troubled, morally ambiguous character. Today, at age 82, Zimbardo is a celebrity icon of psychology—a professor emeritus at Stanford, the author of many bestselling pop-psychology books, an expert witness in the Abu Ghraib trials, and past president of the American Psychological Association. In the movie, however, you'll see him as he was in 1971: long-haired, mustachioed, a newly tenured Stanford professor who's head over heels for his University of California-Berkeley professor girlfriend. You'll also see him play "superintendent" of a prison he simulates for a study, organizing and overseeing a situation that emotionally traumatizes some of its participants and makes others act just plain sadistic.

It's a complex portrait that will leave some viewers with a dubious impression of the professor, especially in Billy Crudup's singleminded yet enigmatic portrayal. Yet the real-life Zimbardo is a vocal champion of the movie. He even collaborated and campaigned with a screenwriter for years to get it made. Why does a man who comes off so ambivalently decide to champion this particular adaptation? We caught up with Zimbardo last Friday to ask about his motivations for supporting a docudrama adaptation, how faithful the film is to the original experiment, and why he believes this movie matters now.


I was interested to learn from a recent interview you did with the Huffington Post that you had been receiving scripts and been approached by actors for about 35 years until this adaptation came along.

All I wanted was to sit in the audience and see a movie before I die. I didn’t even care if it was a good one or not. The experiment itself is so obviously made for a movie. You see character transformation day in, day out, day after day; there’s no comparable study ever done. It had appeal, but it went through various scripts [that] wanted to make it more dramatic and various actors who had big reputations but would have dominated the movie. This ended up being the right movie at the right time with the right script and the right actors.

What about this project made it different compared to previous efforts?

The first thing was that I worked very closely with Tim Talbott, the screenwriter, for the last six or eight years. He was hired as a consultant because they [then-production company Maverick Films] didn’t have a production team. I was sending him the chapters that I was writing for my book The Lucifer Effect. A big chunk of that book is what actually happened in the Stanford prison study, which I went back and re-visited by looking at all the video tapes we had made and making type scripts. All of the dialogue between the prisoners and the guards in the movie is exactly transcribed from the study. [Tim had] different people say some dialogue, and he doesn’t use all of it, and makes changes in the sequencing. But the movie ends up being a very faithful recreation of what actually happened in that experiment. Of course, it’s crunching six days down to two hours, so a lot of the dramatic events in the real study could not be put into the movie.

(Photo: Dr. Philip Zimbardo)

(Photo: Dr. Philip Zimbardo)

What were some of those dramatic events that couldn’t be added?

What made the [original] study so powerful immediately was that I had arranged for the Palo Alto police department to make mock arrests—to arrest prisoners waiting at home and the dormitory and to bring them to actual jail to fingerprint them, take their photograph, and put them in a real prison cell. Each one, one after another. Then each one would be picked up by my graduate students and brought down to our prison. In the movie, they have only one of those [arrests], and [the study participant] doesn’t actually go to jail. They have a policeman put a blindfold on, and then the next thing you know, they’re in our prison.

It was very dramatic to actually have these kids in a real jail, with real cops telling them to take this seriously, and going through the process of being finger-printed, taking photographs, putting a rap sheet on them.

The interesting thing to me is that almost everything in the movie is a faithful recreation of what happened. Nothing is dramatized. If anything, a lot of drama did not get transformed from the study into the movie.

You’ve already created a documentary based on the Stanford Prison Experiment and incorporated it into your book, The Lucifer Effect. What does a feature film add to the story that we haven't seen before?

It’s really a very important new realm. I’m a researcher, but essentially I’m an educator. Shortly after the study, I produced for college teachers a set of A-slides with a tape recording that was synchronized that many teachers showed in class. When it became possible to do a video, we made The Quiet Rage. Again, my audience was primarily college teachers [who could] use it in class. It’s clear it’s a documentary.

But here, what happens—and what you don’t get in my book The Lucifer Effect—is that the audience is watching as if they were voyeurs, looking in on this evil thing emerging. At the first level, they’re observing me and my staff—Craig Haney, Curtis Banks, David Jaffe—as we are observing the prisoner and guards dynamic. And now, we step back: They are observing us. The audience is in a special, privileged viewing position that you don’t get from reading the book, and you don’t get from seeing the documentary. It’s what makes the movie riveting and what makes it emotionally distressing—which it is.

The hope I have is that that strong emotional impact will get transformed into an intellectual process of saying: What kind of guard would I have been? What kind of criminal would I have been? Would I have ended the study earlier? Should new research be done? What are the questions that it raises about real prisons? So, as an educator, that would be my hope, that this movie can do something that nothing I’ve written or produced before has been able to do.

This movie is going to reach an entirely new audience than your documentary, and maybe even introduce your experiment to people who've never heard of it. For a newcomer, somebody maybe in their 20s who is only vaguely familiar with your work, what is the takeaway message?

I think what’s interesting about the experiment and the movie is, it really operates on a number of different levels. One is, again, the curiosity of it—would I have done, could I ever have imagined doing, the worst things that the evil guard did? Could I imagine being able to resist, no matter what the guards did? Would I break down? Would I end up being a pussy? That’s at one level.

The other thing is: When have I, as an ordinary young person, been in this situation before? I think the most interesting dynamic of human nature is that human transformation is never that kind. Somebody you know, someone like yourself or somebody close to you, suddenly begins to change because they’ve been put in a certain situation or have been given a certain role or authority. [We like to think] our personality is relatively fixed, we are who we are, that we are not influenced by things around us. This study says no, that might be true sometimes, but other times when you’re put in an unfamiliar situation where you don’t have any guidelines or any rules that contain who you are, you could be anything. We have a whole historical precedent of hundreds of thousands, millions, of people from every country all around the world being seduced into evil. So hopefully, the movie will make people think, hopefully in a creative way, about these very fundamental problems.

The last thing, of course, is that just [on Thursday] President Obama visited an American prison for the first time in the history of any president and declared that there needs to be prison reform. There are 2.3 million American citizens in prison. It’s at least twice to five times as much as any nation in the world, and we now know prisons don’t reform, they simply punish. It’s the timing of this movie 44 years later that might be perfectly attuned to these current events of President Obama’s becoming aware that prisons are places of abuse, especially of minorities, because our prisons are still filled disproportionately with African Americans and Latinos.

That’s a really interesting point. But there’s a complicating factor: In the 44 years that have passed, your experiment has come under fire by researchers who have questioned the methodology. One of our own writers recently wrote that he thought the cards were stacked in favor of the conclusion you came away with—which is that the situation dominated in this scenario, rather than the people within it having an endemic capacity for evil. Does this movie have the power to change the controversial public perception of what you did in 1971?

I think so. I honestly think so. I have said all of my career that my goal, everything I do, is to give psychology away to the public. I’ve always tried to translate research in a readable way to the public. I published in Psychology Today, not only psychology journals. And a lot of the research I do comes from trying to understand social problems like research on graffiti, research on torture, research on violence and abuse in neighborhoods. Essentially, the media is the link between academia and the public. So I’ve been aware of it, but I’ve never had an opportunity at this level to have a film, which could be a blockbuster. The reviews are extraordinarily good—and it’s the combination of acting—here’s 24 young, amazingly good actors, and Kyle Alvarez did a brilliant job molding them into a unit—and the very powerful score, the editing, the scenes that go into slow motion that heighten the intensity of that moment. I think the film has the capacity, the qualities, to have a big, big, enduring impact. Certainly after it has done the rounds around the States, and there’s a lot of interest abroad, it will be part of introductory psychology classes everywhere.

It is, it’s a very powerful film. I found myself while watching it feeling a lot of conflicting emotions. I can only imagine what you might feel as you’re watching yourself onscreen played by Billy Crudup.

It’s painful. I’ve watched it four times. The first time it was almost overwhelmingly painful. I wanted to walk out of that last scene, until I said to myself, "OK, stop it." But each time I watch it I see something new, something very subtle that I missed before, that Kyle worked in, something where the sequence is not exact. I’m hopeful that it will have some enduring value. As I said, it could have an impact not only at the individual level, but it could have an impact if Obama’s idea about prison reform really gets rolling. There’s no question we need prison reform. It’s a multi-million dollar failure that taxpayers are paying for. People have to get rid of the conservative view of the exhaust on time and being right on creating the appropriate kind of prisons.

You said watching this movie was painful. Forty-four years later, is there anything you would have changed about the way you went about the experiment, about how you set it up?

Yeah. The most critical thing: I feel guilty that I made the mistake of playing the role of prison superintendent. I should have only been the objective research principal investigator. I did it because, at the beginning, I said that all of us needed to take a role—like, the undergraduate David, he’s going to be the warden, Craig Haney’s going to be the lieutenant, and I’m going to be prison superintendent. [But] over time I became the prison superintendent. With that label at my door, and when parents visited and treated me as if I was prison superintendent, I began to act that way. What that means is that when I see prisoners breaking down, instead of saying, "Oh my God, I have to end this study, people are suffering," my job is what? Get a replacement. Bring the student to student health—which we did—get a replacement.

I lost my sense of compassion, which when I think of myself, is one of my main attributes—to be a compassionate, caring person, as a professor, as a person. I totally lost that. I would have changed that. I would have had a separate person play that role, or I would have had an ombudsman, somebody who sits back, observes the whole thing, and has the power to blow the whistle. "OK, time out, study’s over, you proved your point. Fade to black."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.