September 10, 2015

A Reality With Repercussions: The Stanford Prison Experiment

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We’d all like to believe that we are good people. Sure, we may cut someone off while driving, tell the occasional white lie or equivocation or sneak an extra refill of coffee, but we aren’t bad. We’d all like to believe that when faced with a trying situation we would never behave in such an egregious manner as those who are actually confronted with the situation. We’d all like to believe that when placed into a position of power we wouldn’t exploit it. But would we?



With the widespread news coverage of various abominations committed by guards in prisons, such as to the detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the question of circumstance versus inherent characteristics is being discussed. This question is central to Kyle Alvarez’s latest film, The Stanford Prison Experiment.  The film is a chilling reenactment of the infamous psychological study conducted by researchers led by Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University in 1971. In brief, the study evaluated the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or a guard. 24 male students were arbitrarily divided into two groups by a coin toss, 12 guards and 12 prisoners. Guards were given a set of tasks to have the prisoners perform but received no formal training; prisoners were given a number and a cell. The study was stopped prematurely after six days and did not reach the planned two weeks.

This study is fundamental to intro psychology classes and the U.S. military alike. A dark insight into the capacities of human behavior, the study informs us of the uncomfortable potential of human behavior. Perhaps we are all capable of evil, it just depends on when.

Familiar with the experiment, I knew I needed to see a visual representation to fully appreciate the extreme conclusions that had been drawn. As a self-identified optimist and do-gooder I had been skeptical of the study — I couldn’t see myself ever becoming as sinister or malicious as the guards in the study. After viewing the film and attending the lecture, I am beginning to rethink my own potential.

The Stanford Prison Experiment has received criticism and praise for its extreme proceedings. As the film transpires, the viewer sees how the roles assigned to the male students cease to be just roles and become a new form of reality. In a painfully raw unfolding, the guards begin to abuse their power with more creative forms of punishment and the prisoners become meeker and more uniform. In the beginning, while the study still seemed like a study, there were a few tries of insurrection among the prisoners, mainly led by prisoner 8612. These revolts provoked the birth of a super guard, a guard who quickly took the position of power. This was the guard who, during his interview, slouched back in his chair, had described himself as easy going and non-authoritative. In his final interview, after his role had been taken away, my own guttural reaction to him had changed. He remained to me the super guard, the sneer of his face permanently branded to my memory of him.

The most striking part of the film was the development of Dr. Philip Zimbardo. In the beginning he is shown with his significant other, Christina Maslach, another researcher. Their interaction is loving and gentle. Zimbardo seems to encompass the role of any intellectual — thoughtful and quiet, his only offense being that he was too consumed by his work. This shell of a persona is broken as he becomes increasingly absorbed by the study. His character evolves into a sly, controlling, authoritative figure prone to angry explosions. Note that Zimbardo was not supposed to be part of the study; he was the main researcher. But even still, the study was able to permeate the supposed impenetrable bounds between researcher and subject, revealing the unyielding power of the experiment.

The screening I attended of the film was held at Cinemapolis with a special discussion led by Professor Emeritus Dr. Daryl Bem. Bem had been on faculty at Stanford during the experiment and had been a colleague of Dr. Philip Zimbardo. The most intriguing part of the brief introduction that Bem gave was his own experience with Zimbardo. He described the researcher as one of the sweetest, well-intentioned individuals he knew. He then added, after a pause, that he only knew the post-experiment Zimbardo.

A question of my own that was echoed in the discussion was gender and sexuality in relation to the study. The experiment was made up of 24 men. The prisoners were purposefully emasculated to promote feelings of humiliation and vulnerability by being made to wear a dress-like smock with no undergarments. In the film, Zimbardo finally intercepts the guards and ends the experiment during a punishment of a sexual nature that insinuated male-on-male relations. The fact that it was a sexual act that caused the end of the study has large ramifications for what we deem as acceptable — Zimbardo didn’t stop the experiment when a prisoner was in solitary confinement for longer than the study allowed. With the popularity of today’s Orange is the New Black, it was impossible to ignore the question of how the study may have ended up if it had been 24 women and not 24 men. Would there have been a different outcome?

While the overall film was unnerving and eye opening, it did leave questions of ethics and methodologies of the study. A scene that was particularly troubling to me was when a colleague of Zimbardo asked him what his independent variable was. Zimbardo was unable to answer. Any seventh grade science student can tell you that an experiment requires a control and an independent and dependent variable. This left the viewer with the question of whether or not this really was an experiment. After my own viewing experience, I am left with the uncomfortable feeling that no, the Stanford prison experiment was anything but an experiment. Yes, it was an exploration and confirmation of the capacity of human behavior, but for all involved it had become a reality — a reality with significant repercussions.

Tamar Law is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reacted at [email protected]