The Stanford Prison Experiment

In 1961, Yale Psychology Professor Stanley Milgram sought to determine whether Adolf Eichmann’s claim that he was merely following orders was credible. He then began an experiment in which subjects for less than an hour were paid to punish someone in another room with electric shocks if they failed to answer a question correctly, not knowing that the person in the other room was not being shocked. Milgram later concluded, “The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.” Ten years later, Stanford Psychology Philip Zimbardo got a grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research to study the causes of conflict between military guards and prisoners. But these important facts are not mentioned when the film The Stanford Prison Experiment begins. Nor is there any mention of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1967. Instead, filmviewers first view Zimbardo (played by Billy Crudup) and colleagues interviewing Stanford undergraduates who need some extra money before classes resume in the fall quarter to select among applicants to participate in a two-week “prison experiment” for $15 per day. Some are then randomly chosen either as guards or as prisoners. Rules of confinement are explained before the experiment, but the guards violate them during the experiment, inflicting extraordinary psychological and even some physical and sexual abuse on the prisoners. Although they believe that they are trying to make their prisoners obedient, the guards end up slave training. Some prisoners are so devastated psychologically that they are released within a few days. The experiment itself is terminated on the sixth day, when Zimbardo concludes that he can no longer tolerate watching the abuse he watches from a surveillance camera on the monitor in his control room. Indeed, the main person who is experimented upon is Zimbardo himself for undertaking an experiment without apparent knowledge of Milgram’s experiment or of actual conditions in military prisons. Zimbardo perfectly fits the role of the experimenter in Milgram’s study, bossing his psychology graduate students and the guards. But the experiment unravels as prisoners rebel, guards overreact, Zimbardo’s colleagues object, and his future wife calls him out for being an idiot. An older psychology professor, not part of the experiment, asks him to identify the independent variable of his experiment, which he cannot. A title at the end–that no permanent damage was done to any of the experimental subjects—is contradicted by one of the former prisoners in a post-experimental conversation with one of his most abusive guards. That guard admits he was experimenting with himself in trying to test his own limits in inflicting abuse and professes surprise that no prisoner specifically objected—although they did. That conversation is entirely different from debriefings after the Milgram experiment, when subjects were reassured that they caused no pain and were able to rationalize their own behavior. Zimbardo, in short, proves to be the most naïve person in the film. Clearly, he violates professional ethics so blatantly because he needed the money (and prestige) from the grant more than the students. A title at the end indicates that Zimbardo now gives lectures and has written about abuse of power, including Abu Ghraib, having done so himself far more than any of the guards in his experiment. (The idea of paper bags over the heads of the Stanford prisoners in the film came directly from Abu Ghraib.) Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, The Stanford Prison Experiment went beyond the actual experiment in order to provoke conversation by filmviewers as they leave a cinema because the film is an experiment upon the audience as well. What is depicted is a paradigm of why Americans and others around the world lack real democracy: They obey authority because they lack moral courage, preferring to worship (or have a taste of) power, even (or perhaps especially) when exercised illegitimately. Thus, learning nothing from the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments, some psychologists provided technical assistance to the torture conducted at Guantánamo, and the American Psychological Association until recently refused to consider condemning them. In short, Abu Ghraib and Gitmo are re-enactments of the Zimbardo experiment in a country still fascinated with torture as a method for maintaining tyranny. The Political Film Society has nominated The Stanford Prison Experiment as best film of 2015 for raising consciousness about the need for greater democracy and the imperative of upholding respect for human rights. MH