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The Stanford Prison Experiment Film

Dr. Philip Zimbardo ©

Greenlighting a film on a famous psychology experiment may have seemed like a great idea for filmmakers fascinated by psychopathology, but when it comes to “The Stanford Prison Experiment” they missed the mark by a mile. As a psychologist, I knew about the experiment and many of its flaws and I wanted to see how the filmmakers would portray the central character, Dr. Philip Zimbardo, and what they would make of the entire “experiment.” I use the word experiment advisedly because, at its very core, this was not an experiment by any means. In fact, it was a poorly designed project that did provide an incredible amount of publicity for Zimbardo and boosted his career, undeservedly.

Understandably, from the outset, the “guards” who were college students, paid $15/day, as were the “prisoners,” did not wear the mirrored sunglasses of the original project. I realize that they would have reflected the camera back at itself and brown-tinted sunglasses had to be used. But this fails in yet another aspect of the work; the guard’s eyes are visible. The reason for the mirrored glasses was so that the prisoners could not tell if the guards were looking at them or not and this was a psychological ploy that was used effectively. Therefore, another minus point for the film, albeit, it’s a technicality that could not be overcome.

The Ethical Violations Begin

At the beginning of the film, we realize that Zimbardo is having an inappropriate, sexual relationship with one of his graduate students. This should have earned him immediate dismissal from Stanford University, but the #MayToo movement was not in effect. Would they have tossed him out today? Probably not because now he is so revered even though this experiment was so flawed.

Zimbardo has gone on to retirement but, unfortunately, his work is still cited in too many papers, too many textbooks and touted in too many classrooms as a reasonable experiment in social psychology. That Zimbardo wasn’t a clinical psychologist, but a social psychologist, also adds to the problem here, a point not sufficiently stressed in either books or this film.

Social psychologists are not trained, nor are they capable of handling the psychological problems these experiments may engender and that is my second concern about this project and the film. I don’t think that Zimbardo deserves credit or accolades and I don’t think a film should been made of his experiment. He permitted young men to be emotionally crushed, humiliated, frightened and, perhaps, damaged for life. How many of them came away with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) as a result, a disorder that is life-altering in its effects. Debriefing doesn’t help, and that’s all he did plus a bit of follow-up, but how much and how intense?

Consider, too, that some students were assigned to be guards and some prisoners. The guards would quickly exhibit unbelievably savage behavior as when one threatened to “shove that sausage up your ass” when a “prisoner” refused to eat it.

But who cares, it’s only Hollywood, right? All make-believe, right? No, this was brutality and cruelty exhibited on behalf of a member of the professional staff of one of the nation’s most prestigious universities. In 2002, Zimbardo would be elected president of The American Psychological Association and later become a professor emeritus of Stanford. His fame, garnered thanks in large part to this “experiment,” most probably played a central role in his celebrity and rise in the ranks of the APA to that pinnacle of success.

A Flawed “Experiment”

Did Zimbardo know that his experiment would be highly controversial and seriously unethical? One major problem? Every experiment has an independent variable; the thing that gets manipulated. This one had NONE and the genius that designed it (Zimbardo) never realized that until a peer questioned him on it.

In the film, he doesn’t address it, but in a slide presentation bought for colleges (I used the slide presentation in college classes I taught), he admitted that he thought the question by his fellow professor was stupid because he was trying to stop a prison break at the time.

There was no prison and there wouldn’t be a prison break but it illustrates how deeply into the project he had become immersed. Why didn’t he stop the whole thing once he realized there was no independent variable? Was it the money it was costing? His reputation? Did any of the filmmakers think twice about this and question him? Did they have that outside psychologist consultant or were they all still only thinking about presenting the film at Sundance and getting an award?

One has to wonder why he chose a time when most of the university staff and students would be absent from campus to set up his “prison.” We have to suspect his motives and what he did. If I were the scriptwriter, I would have had a VO and interspersed clips from how the guards went from normal college students to cruel and bullying within a few days. And I wouldn’t have taken over two hours to handle it.

Blatant Brutality Unchallenged

Was Zimbardo as distressed as it shows him in some portions of the film as he watches the guards punishing a prisoner by making him do push-ups as they sit on his back? What about when the guards wanted the prisoners to hump each other as one instructed half to bend over and the other half to stand behind them? Is this acceptable in any experiment; simulated rape? If he were so concerned, what would be the reason not to immediately stop it and call it all off? I don’t buy the mea culpa. And I continue to wonder about the rape simulation and the scene where he tells one prisoner to press up against another young man and tell him that he loves him. Zimbardo is watching but he takes no action. Why?

I would’ve also concentrated more on the experimenter and what he was doing all along. I think they required, and I strongly emphasize this, an outside psychologist who could have tested the entire script and made important improvements that would have made this a much more worthwhile film. I can’t imagine that anyone would spend two hours watching this and come away believing that they had seen a special independent film that deserved to be made. It’s just outside of my ken.

After having viewed half of the film, in my professional opinion, there is or was the possibility of a lawsuit again Stanford University and Philip Zimbardo for the actions taken during this unethical exercise which resulted in potential psychological harm to the students involved.

Zimbardo took an active part, when he donned a pair of dark glasses, and presented himself as some authority parole board figure refusing to allow a student to have access to either a doctor or medical care. He mocked the student and showed that they would not release him from “prison” for a “stomach ache.”

A Lawsuit Potential?

What else do we need, when we now have both this film and a slide presentation that had been available for college students over the past several decades? I do not know if the statute of limitations is in effect here but I would wonder what the actions might be at this point. I would also wonder what has happened to the students who were involved in this project and how it may have affected their lives. Major questions remain to be answered, if someone wishes to investigate such egregious behavior at a premier university in the United States.

Of interest is a statement by Gina Perry, who wrote “The Lost Boys” about social psychologist Muzafer Sherif’s equally famous study known as “The Robber’s Cave,” who is quoted as saying:

“I think people are aware now that there are real ethical problems with Sherif’s research…but probably much less aware of the backstage [manipulation] that I’ve found. And that’s understandable because the way a scientist writes about their research is accepted at face value.”

Wasn’t this exactly what Zimbardo was counting on as he mounted his expensive “experiment” in social group behavior and human cruelty? What about the inherent cruelty that may have existed within Zimbardo? Was that ever examined? Not in the film where he is depicted as a user of graduate students and a manipulator of the system and even himself. In fact, he victimizes himself as he is so caught up in his experiment that he can’t hear a reasonable effort to end it when one of his co-experimenters indicates that it must end.

Experiments Are Never What They Seem

While taking a course during my undergraduate studies in college, the social psychology teacher decided that he wanted to write a paper and he wanted us to be the subjects that night. As I recall, he handed out several questionnaires which we obediently completed and return to him. At that point, the instructor indicated that he would have the statistics run and would reveal the results to us at our next class meeting the next week. All of us knew what the questions were and pretty much what we expected the results would show.

When our professor passed out a copy of the paper that he had prepared and which he was presenting to a journal, it was to our dismay and incredulity that the statistics appear to be totally manipulated. The professor made an off-hand comment about having to present the material in a way acceptable to the journal and that was the reason there was some small discrepancy between what we believed had happened and what he showed had happened. In this way, I share a belief that Perry expressed in her description of the Sherif experiment.

Zimbardo concedes that “they suffered” but he is not qualified to say how or what they should do to remediate any damage he may have done to them. Attempting to cover himself, he suggests they learned a great deal about themselves and about human nature, so I suppose he’s to be congratulated for providing this learning experience for them?

We know that subjects who have engaged in extraordinarily upsetting behavior uncharacteristic of them, would say it was a valuable experience, but is that true? Leon Festinger knew what would happen when he proposed his theory of cognitive dissonance. They probably would change their belief that they did something good rather than act in a vicious manner. The Zimbardo subjects were being compliant and still trying to justify their behavior to themselves and others.

As I watched the credits crawl, I waited to see who the psychologist consultant might have been on the film. I watched the Foley guy, best boy, script supervisor, caterer, hair and make-up people, drivers, stunt actors and the rest but no outside consultant.

A special thanks went to Phil and his former-grad-assistant wife now for their participation and Zimbardo is now an authority on authoritarian personalities or some such and “lectures around the world.” Bravo, Phil, bravo.

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