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A Thriller ... About Psychological Methodology

Inside the claustrophobic, ethically dubious world of The Stanford Prison Experiment.
stanford prison experiment

Michael Angarano as the lead guard in The Stanford Prison Experiment. (Photo: Coup d'Etat Films)

“We’re taking away everything that makes them them.”

This is how Professor Philip Zimbardo explains the premise of the experiment he staged in the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department in 1971. Zimbardo and his research assistants paid 24 male college students $15 a day to play prison for two weeks; half the group became “guards,” the other half “prisoners.” Among the latter group, Zimbardo’s goal was to dehumanize the “inmates,” to erase any sense of individual sovereignty and dignity by making them wear dresses and ungainly stocking-caps (these were meant to simulate shaved heads). Each dress bore a three- or four-digit number; prisoners were required to answer to their respective numbers, and to disclaim their previous identities. Within three days, the guards turned sadistic, while the prisoners consented to lie bound and gagged, or to be deprived of sleep, or to simulate sex-acts on each other, or occasionally to mutiny. The two-week experiment became a dystopian nightmare, and they called it off after six days.

Zimbardo’s thesis is that the penal institution will inevitably flatten the individual, whether prisoner or guard—a variation on Frederick Douglass’ proverb that "No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck."

That’s Zimbardo talking above, but it’s also Billy Crudup playing Zimbardo in Kyle Alvarez’s new film, The Stanford Prison Experiment. Such replications are possible because, for good or ill, the Stanford team took fairly comprehensive film footage at the time. In one reel from the original experiment, you can see Zimbardo explaining his hypothesis to the guards:

You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can create a notion of arbitrariness that their life is totally controlled by us, by the system, you, me, and they'll have no privacy.... We're going to take away their individuality in various ways. In general what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness. That is, in this situation we'll have all the power and they'll have none.

Zimbardo’s thesis is that the penal institution will inevitably flatten the individual, whether prisoner or guard—a variation on Frederick Douglass’sproverb that “No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.” When his guards start busting heads, Zimbardo practically encourages them. In the Stanford County Jail (as Zimbardo and his deputies dubbed their facility), it becomes clear that brutal conditions, even in first-world jails, can make monsters out of prisoner and guard alike.

The film itself moves deliberately (some critics have said glacially) through the first two days of the study; the prisoners adapt themselves uneasily to the first round of hazing, while Michael Angarano’s lead guard develops his best impression of Boss Godfrey from Stuart Rosenberg's Cool Hand Luke. That 1967 film, in fact, inspired Zimbardo and his minions in more ways than one; it was Rosenberg's correctional officers who gave Zimbardo the idea to outfit his own guards in matching reflective sunglasses. “We want to project unified authority,” Crudup’s Zimbardo explains. (In the film, he also enjoys wearing the glasses himself.) Meanwhile, a prisoner named Daniel Culp (played with sleazy post-hippie grace by Ezra Miller) begins to foment a mock-uprising, only to realize that the guards aren’t joking; with each passing day, the sunglass-gang grows ever more willing to use its truncheons.

The Stanford Prison Experiment was not, technically speaking, an experiment; its hypothesis was also its foregone conclusion.

The young men who participated in the 1971 experiment were all college students in the Bay Area (though for the most part not Stanford students, despite what you will read elsewhere), and nearly all were anti-war, anti-authoritarian types—some of them longhairs, all of them seemingly dedicated to the brotherhood of man. In the initial psychological screenings and evaluations (which whittled the initial crop of 75 applicants down to the 24 people selected), each of the eventual guards requested to play a prisoner in the experiment, in part because it sounded easier but really because none of them wanted to play the Man. “Nobody likes guards,” Angarano’s character says at the outset, with a complicated little grin that anticipates his imminent ghastly transformation. The film suggests (even if the study does not) that Angarano’s Boss Godfrey impression is a way to distance himself from the psychological torture he inflicts on his charges. More important, the film suggests that Zimbardo actually encouraged this kind of emotional dissociation—the guards stripped of conscience, just as the prisoners are stripped of dignity—and herein lies the methodological problem too often forgotten in the version of the Stanford Prison Experiment as it survives in popular memory.

When you give a bunch of 21-year-olds night-sticks and badass sunglasses and tell them the people they’re herding aren’t actually people, then you’ve stacked the deck. When your goal is to see how much a “prisoner” is willing to put up with—and how much a “guard” is capable of—you are positively incentivizing abuse of power. Zimbardo got swept up in the demimonde he had created, and conveniently construed his own unwitting complicity as further evidence of the researchers' hypothesis that a vengeful darkness lurks within us all. No doubt it does, but Zimbardo's work is too messy, too compromised to qualify as evidence. The Stanford Prison Experiment was not, technically speaking, an experiment; its hypothesis was also its foregone conclusion. In the film, as in real life, a colleague gently asks Zimbardo what his “independent variable” is—about the most straightforward question you can ask a psychological researcher. In the film, as in real life, Zimbardo explodes and refuses to answer the question. He can’t. “This is no longer an experiment,” Zimbardo’s chief research assistant says toward the start of the film’s third act. “It’s a demonstration.” But “demonstration” suggests the illustration of an abiding truth. The SPE was less a demonstration than a performance.

"I don't think of it as an experiment," one of the prisoners tells the camera in an exit interview. (Another real interview that Alvarez replicates with creepy precision.) "It was a prison, run by psychologists instead of the state." The film closes with re-enactments of these interviews, offset with title cards that insist, implausibly, that none of the prisoners was harmed in the experiment. It is difficult to accept this disclaimer after the claustrophobic sociopathy of the 120-minute film that precedes it, and I can’t help but wonder whether the real Zimbardo’s hovering presence as a principal consultant on the film has somewhat compromised the integrity of the re-telling. Crudup plays Zimbardo as something of a smooth monster through the first two acts but eventually becomes worn down by conscience and rushes into the "prison" to pull the plug. In that moment, we are asked to sympathize with the psychologist who fell prey to his own dark projections about human nature. The sympathy does not come easily.

At the New Yorker, Maria Konnikova offers a thoughtful and evenhanded critique of the pat conclusions we like to draw from an experiment where the findings were as dubious as the methodology: "The lesson of Stanford isn’t that any random human being is capable of descending into sadism and tyranny. It’s that certain institutions and environments demand those behaviors—and, perhaps, can change them." Konnikova is absolutely right that we should beware totalizing construals of human evil. We should probably also beware psychologists who are more interested in proving a point than in remembering to introduce an independent variable.