56: The Experiment
The Experiment tells a story based on 1971’s Stanford Prison Experiment. In Hollywood’s rendition, evil seems to triumph over good and a man’s life is forfeit as a result. Surely these horrific results of good people being turned once power is given and they’re simply told to “do their job” are made up for the movie. Right?
LINKS AND MORE RESOURCES
- Chat about the show on the Based on a True Story Facebook group
- Support the show at Patreon
- Let me know what you think of the show on Twitter
Books & Resources
- Feature Film – The Stanford Prison Experiment (Documentary) – YouTube
- Amazon.com: Das Experiment- Black Box. Versuch mit tödlichem Ausgang. Roman zum Film. (9783499230462): Mario Giordano, Moritz Bleibtreu, Oliver Hirschbiegel: Books
- The Experiment (2010) – IMDb
- The Experiment (2010 film) – Wikipedia
- The Experiment (2010) – Full Cast & Crew – IMDb
- The Stanford Prison Experiment (film) – Wikipedia
- Stanford Prison Experiment
- Stanford prison experiment – Wikipedia
- Stanford Prison Experiment | Simply Psychology
- The Real Lesson of the Stanford Prison Experiment – The New Yorker
- Is it time to stop doing any more Milgram experiments? | Aeon Essays
- Milgram Experiment | Simply Psychology
- Milgram’s Experiments: The Perils of Obedience
- Milgram Experiment – Will People Do Anything If Ordered?
- Philip Zimbardo | Speaker | TED.com
- Stanford Prison Experiment – Roles Define Your Behavior
- Stanford prison experiment – Wikipedia
- The Experiment by Paul Scheuring Synopsis – Plot Summary – Fandango
- The Stanford Prison Experiment: History’s Most Controversial Psychology Study Turns 40 – Brain Pickings
- Mario Giordano (writer) – Wikipedia
- Stanford Magazine – Article
- Shocking “prison” study 40 years later: What happened at Stanford? – Photo 1 – Pictures – CBS News
- The Stanford Prison Experiment: Still powerful after all these years (1/97)
- Stanford Prison Experiment: How accurate is the movie? Philip Zimbardo weighs in – The Mercury News
Originally broadcast from 2005 to 2009, Prison Break only lasted four seasons despite getting something that a lot of TV shows don’t get: a planned ending.
Just a couple months ago, in April, Prison Break made a return to TV as season five on Fox, also referred to as Prison Break: Resurrection, aired. Whether or not there’s more seasons in store for the characters of Lincoln Burrows and Michael Schofield has yet to be seen.
The man behind the thriller series is Paul Scheuring. Paul was both the primary writer and executive producer for the original series as well as the resurrected season five.
Interestingly, though, Paul didn’t direct any of the episodes for Prison Break. In fact, as of this recording Paul only has two directorial credits to his name. One of them was a low budget film from back in 2000, years before Paul started work on Prison Break. That was a movie called 36K.
The other film Paul directed was one he did right after the original run of Prison Break ended in 2009. And that’s the film we’ll be looking at today.
The Experiment was released in 2010 and tells the story of what most consider the most controversial human experiment in psychological history.
The true story behind The Experiment
The movie begins by mentioning it’s based on a novel called Black Box. That novel was written by a German author named Mario Giordano. In fact, it was Mario who was also the co-writer for The Experiment along with Paul Scheuring. So while the movie may not have been based on a true story directly, the novel called Black Box was based on a true story.
This isn’t really anything new, it’s sort of like what we saw with the movie 300 that was actually based on the graphic novel of the same name instead of the history itself.
As a little side note, there was also a German movie named Das Experiement that was released in 2001 also based on Mario’s novel. Oh, and there was another movie released in 2015 called The Stanford Prison Experiment that doesn’t have anything to do with Mario’s book except that both that movie and Mario’s book are based on the same true story.
Anyway, during this introduction to the film we see Adrien Brody’s character, Travis, as he gets laid off from a job at a retirement home. Soon after losing his job, he meets a girl who he instantly gets a crush on.
All of this is made up for the movie, but the story points here are important to set up the scene. The character of Travis wasn’t a real person, and neither was the girl he likes. Oh, her character name is Bay and she’s played by Maggie Grace.
If there was a real person that closely resembles some of the things we saw Travis do in the movie it’d probably be Clay Ramsey. We’ll learn more about Clay a bit later.
Despite being fictional and despite the movie never really telling us exactly what year it is, there’s some reality to what we see in the film.
The year was 1971 and the setting was Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. For the past 16 years, the United States had been deadlocked in a bloody war with Vietnam.
With each passing day, there were more and more protests about the war. Americans across the country kept protesting and asking why they were still involved in the conflict. This growing pressure to end the war also added to a growing dislike for governmental authority in general. Military, police, it didn’t really matter—lots of people were growing tired of governmental control over their lives.
So when we saw Adrien Brody’s character, Travis, joining a protest march, that’s something that was common in the early 1970s. The general sense of despising violence that we get from Travis as he talks with his new crush, Maggie Grace’s character, Bay, was also a common trend in the 1970s culture.
It was the 70s. Peace, love and happiness for all, right?
Except the movie isn’t set in the 70s. This is pretty obvious right away from the technology in the movie alone. For example, the LED light on Travis’ bosses desk when he gets fired. Although technically LEDs were invented in the 1960s, another clue comes from the flat screen computer monitor right next to the LED light—or another one in the bar when Travis is chatting with Bay.
Anyway, the point is that the timeline in the movie is not set in the 1970s like the real events. And as I mentioned just a moment ago, there isn’t a timeline indicated in the film but my speculation is that it’s set around the same time as the movie was made.
The reason I’m guessing that is because when the movie was released there was also a backdrop of growing dislike in the United States for a foreign conflict. It wasn’t the Vietnam War like the 1970s, but instead the war in Iraq that lasted from 2003 until 2011.
And since The Experiment was released in 2010, it’d make sense for the film to be present-day when it was released.
Back in the movie, Adrien Brody’s Travis is trying to find a job after getting laid off when he sees an ad in the classifieds of the newspaper.
That’s actually pretty close to reality, because the real Stanford Prison Experiment began with an ad in the classifieds of the newspaper, too. Although the ad itself was different than what we saw in the movie.
In the film the ad stated subjects were wanted for a behavioral experiment. According to the ad it’d be two weeks long, no experience necessary and perhaps most importantly it said the experiment would be safe. Payment was $1,000 per day.
In truth, the classified ad did say the experiment was two weeks long, but it didn’t mention anything about it being safe. Although that’s probably because the thought of it not being safe wasn’t even on anyone’s mind—sort of like how an ad for most jobs don’t bother to claim the job is safe. Some things are just assumed.
Still, the ad was fairly simple and unassuming as it called for male college students to participate in a psychological study of prison life. The duration expected was anywhere from one to two weeks and for further information or to apply, show up in person at Room 248, Jordan Hall at Stanford University.
Minor detail, perhaps, but there was no phone number listed like we saw in the movie. Perhaps a bit more substantial of a difference was the compensation. In the movie they were offered $1,000 per day for two weeks, or a total of $14,000.
In truth participants were offered only $15 a day for the duration of either one or two weeks. So that’d be anywhere from $105 to $210 overall.
$15 in 1971 is about the same as $91 today, or about $81 in 2010 when we’re assuming the movie takes place. That’s a far cry from the $1,000 a day we saw in the movie.
Speaking of which, after Travis sees the ad he obviously decides to apply since we see him in the next scene in a waiting room with a bunch of other applicants. One of those is Forest Whitaker’s character, Michael Barris. Or just Barris as most people refer to him throughout the movie.
Like Travis, Michael Barris is a fictional character. If there’s a real person who the character of Michael Barris closely resembles it’s probably Dave Eshleman. More on that later.
In the movie, the man conducting the experiment is a psychologist named Dr. Archaleta, who’s played by Fisher Stevens. According to the doctor, any of the applicants who have a history of violence or incarceration are immediately disqualified.
That’s true. Well, Dr. Achaleta isn’t a real person, the real psychologist at Stanford University who was in charge of the experiment was a man named Dr. Philip Zimbardo. Before choosing the final students to participate in the study, Dr. Zimbardo ran a series of tests on them to filter out anyone who might have mental health concerns.
You’ll notice I said students. That’s because in the real study the people chosen were all college students, although not all of them were attending Stanford. Some of them just happened to be in the area at the time. So in the movie when it makes things seem like Travis and Barris weren’t students but were just showing up just because they’re between jobs, that’s not really true.
Well, some of the students certainly were between jobs. Remember Clay Ramsey? After the study, Clay explained the reason he signed up for the experiment was because he was about to go to Stanford in September and wanted to earn some quick cash at a summer job before the Fall semester started. Except it was August, so an experiment that’d only last one or two weeks seemed perfect.
He wasn’t one of the initial students selected, but was rather put onto a list of reserves for the experiment.
In the movie, 26 final people are chosen. In truth, there were 24 people who were selected. Although they were all males, like the movie shows.
According to the movie, the 26 selected men show up like they’re going to work and hop on a bus that takes them to the middle of nowhere. Well, it’s in the middle of a corn field, but it seems like the middle of nowhere.
There’s some elements of truth in this, but the true story is much worse than what we saw in the movie.
Before we get to that, though, there seems to be a bit of fogginess with a lot of online sources about the exact dates for the experiment.
We know from the official presentation that Dr. Zimbardo made with his findings after the experiment, which you can still find elements of on Stanford’s website, that the experiment began on a Sunday morning in August of 1971.
According to some online sources, the study started on Sunday, August 17th, 1971. Except there’s a little problem with that because there was no Sunday, August 17th, 1971. A simple look at the calendar for the year 1971 shows August 17th as a Tuesday.
However, according to Dr. Zimbardo’s aforementioned presentation we know the experiment was prematurely ended on August 20th and that it lasted only six days of the originally planned two weeks, the experiment would’ve started on August 14th, 1971. That’s a Saturday, and likely when Dr. Zimbardo and his colleagues began preparing for the experiment.
After they’d set up the space, on Sunday the participants arrived. Not in a bus, but Dr. Zimbardo arranged for the Palo Alto Police Department to surprise the participants at their homes. The “prisoners” were arrested and charged with Penal Code 211: Armed robbery and burglary.
As far as the participants knew, the arrest was real. Oh sure, they knew they’d signed up for a prison experiment a few weeks earlier, but there were 70 people who signed up. And they knew not everyone would get in. A total of 24 participants out of those 70 were selected.
About half of the 24 total participants ended up being prisoners, the other half being guards. Of those 24, only 18 were the primary participants. The others, like Clay Ramsey, were reserves.
The selection process for which student would be a prisoner and who’d be a guard was done with the flip of a coin to keep it random.
So this is how the experiment began. With a very real police officer arriving at the home of the participants who’d been unlucky enough to be picked to be prisoners. The officer charged them with armed robbery, frisking them spread-eagle against the cop car, cuffing them and putting them in the back of the car to be carried off to the police station.
At the police station—which was a real station—the cops blindfolded the participants and left them in a holding cell for a while. Finally, they were put into a car, still blindfolded, and told they were going to Stanford County Jail for processing.
This is where the switch was made. Instead of going to a county jail, the “prisoners” were sent to the Dr. Zimbardo’s new prison at Stanford University.
Unlike the prison in the middle of corn fields in the movie, the fake prison set up by Dr. Zimbardo was done in the basement of Stanford’s Psychology Department building. Before the prisoners arrived, Dr. Zimbardo’s team used a consultant to help transform a typical school building into a prison environment. That consultant was a man named Carlo Prescott, who himself had spent 17 years in prison. Through Carlo’s consultations and introductions to other ex-cons and corrections officers, Dr. Zimbardo was able to transform the basement of Stanford’s Psychology Department building into a prison.
Rooms that were once laboratories had their doors removed and replaced with steel doors with bars and cell numbers on them. The small hallway outside these new cells was dubbed as the only place that prisoners would be allowed to eat, exercise or even walk outside their cells.
On the opposite side of the hallway from the cells was a storage closet. As is typical for storage rooms, there was no windows in this room, so when the door was closed there’d be no outside light. The prison consultant recommended they set up as solitary confinement there.
At the end of the hallway, a fake wall was put up with a small opening so a camera and audio recording equipment could capture everything that was happening.
Inside the prison environment, there weren’t any restrooms. Instead the guards would have to take prisoners to the restrooms outside the prison area and keep a close eye on them as they did.
In the movie, after arriving in the nondescript brick building, Dr. Achaleta mentions this is the last chance to back out. When no one does, he randomly assigns men to be either prisoners or guards. He then pulls the guards aside and explains the rules to them.
He goes on to say it’s the guards’ job to enforce the rules. If a rule is broken, they’ll have 30 minutes to fix things. If they don’t, the big red light will go off and the experiment will be over. No one will get paid.
We already learned about how the real Dr. Zimbardo determined prisoners and guards with a flip of the coin, but unlike the fictional Dr. Achaleta, the real Dr. Zimbardo didn’t disappear after setting up the scenario. There was no big red light, no 30 minutes to fix things for the guards.
Dr. Zimbardo may not have been the only one coordinating the experiment, but he was leading the experiment and also took on the role of the Superintendent of the fake prison. This dual-role was something he’d admit was a mistake later on.
When the “prisoners” arrived, as Superintendent, Dr. Zimbardo was the one who greeted them by informing them of the seriousness of the armed robbery charges, their new roles as prisoners. All of this to try to make it seem as realistic as possible.
There never was the threat of not paying the $15 a day to the participants. Money was never mentioned.
The new prisoners were, however, stripped naked and sprayed with a hose like we saw in the movie. All of this after getting arrested helped give the prisoners a good sense of their new roles as…well, prisoners.
In the movie, during day one of the experiment the guards are put to the test right away. It’s during rec time when the prisoners are playing basketball. One of the prisoners passes the ball to a guard, who doesn’t see it before it hits him in the face. With a bloody nose, the guards are left to wonder if this instance would break the rule of not touching a guard. Would the experiment be over in the first day if they don’t respond?
The guards in the film decide not to test the big red light and order the prisoners ten pushups as punishment. After punishment is issued, 30 minutes pass and the red light doesn’t go off. The guards assume they dealt with the situation as they should have.
All of that is made up.
Remember, the prison Dr. Zimbardo set up was in the basement of a Stanford University building made from a single hallway and converted lab rooms. There wasn’t a basketball court, high tech cameras or big cages like we see in the movie.
In truth, there were a total of three lab rooms turned cells that had just enough room to hold three cots for the prisoners. So there were nine prisoners total with three on the reserve list.
On the guard’s side there were also nine guards and their shifts were broken up into eight hour shifts. So three guards working three eight hour shifts to keep an eye on the nine prisoners 24 hours a day.
However, it is very true that the guards in the real experiment used push-ups as a means of punishment. This was something Dr. Zimbardo’s team thought wasn’t a very impressive form of punishment until much later, when further research found out that Nazi guards often used push-ups as a form of punishment in concentration camps.
Although, again, the movie is a little lighter on the punishment as the push-ups are done without incident. In reality, one of the guards liked to make things a little more difficult for the prisoners by stepping on the prisoners as they did push-ups or forcing other prisoners to sit on the backs of others to make the push-ups harder.
But that’s getting a little ahead of our story.
In truth, the first day didn’t have any punishments. After the flurry of activity to bring prisoners into their new environment, it was rather uneventful. Dr. Zimbardo would later recall that he was concerned after all of the work to set things up, get assistance from the Palo Alto PD with the arrest and so on, that after the first day he thought nothing would happen in the experiment.
He was wrong.
Oh, as a little side note here, the movie was actually correct in how the prisoners were referred by their assigned numbers instead of names. And while the movie doesn’t have this, during the real experiment they also had a chain wrapped around and locked on their ankle. It was symbolic, but it also meant every time they moved they’d hear the jingle of the chains.
Lastly, all of the guards were told to wear sunglasses even though there wasn’t any sort of windows or even clocks around to know what time of day it was. The reason for the glasses, which we don’t see the guards wearing in the movie, was so the prisoners couldn’t look the guards in the eye. This added a layer of separation from humanity.
The idea for the sunglasses was something Dr. Zimbardo got from Cool Hand Luke. Oddly, that’s not the last time Paul Newman’s classic film would come into play for our story.
Back in the movie, during day two there’s more tension building between prisoners and guards. There’s a food fight started when Adrien Brody’s character, Travis, refuses to eat the horrible cafeteria food. It’s during this food fight that a guard named Chase, who was taking the lead during the first day, starts to take a back seat as Forest Whitaker’s character, Barris, starts to feel the effects of the power he’s been given as a guard.
The character of Chase is played by Cam Gigandet.
Earlier, I mentioned the character of Barris is most likely based on a man named Dave Eshleman. Actually, I think that there’s a bit of Dave Eshleman that went into both Chase and Barris.
In the real experiment, Dave quickly emerged as a leader among the guards. After the experiment, Dave would recall that he, too, used Cool Hand Luke as an inspiration for how to assert authority over the prisoners in his new role as a prison guard.
One of the ways the guards asserted authority was with a roll call. The first of these happened at 2:30 AM on the second day while the prisoners were sleeping in their cells. The prisoners sleepily complied, lining up with their hands against the wall as the guards did their count.
Of course, it’s not like any of these fake prisoners were attempting to escape, but that just shows how the guards were trying to do things they’d seen elsewhere to do what they thought prison guards were supposed to do.
At the time, no one thought much of it.
Later in the morning of the second day, the prisoners rebelled against their confinement. None of this is depicted in the movie, but the prisoners had removed their prisoner ID numbers from their shirts, taken off the stocking caps they’d been forced to wear upon arriving to simulate shaving their heads—no one actually had their head shaved like we saw in the movie—and jammed their beds up against the doors to prevent the guards from entering the cells.
It was only the second day, and already the guards were faced with a predicament. How do they respond?
Unfortunately, they responded with force. But before they did, they waited to bolster their ranks. They called in the three off-duty guards from their homes. Also, the guards from the night shift volunteered to stay extra hours to help with the revolt. So there were all nine guards to deal with the revolt from the nine prisoners.
To get past the barricaded cells, the guards then made use of a tool that’d been left because of a concern for fire threats during the experiment. Using fire extinguishers, they sprayed them into the cells to get the prisoners away from the doors. As they did this, other guards forced the doors open.
Once inside, the guards removed the beds that the prisoners used to barricade the cell doors. They also stripped the prisoners naked yet again, forcing some of the prisoners they thought were the leaders of the rebellion into the storage closet they used as solitary confinement.
After this, the guards decided to try psychological tactics since they couldn’t keep all nine guards on staff the entire time. To do this, they decided to change the cells. Instead of having three prisoners in each of the three cells, they put all of the prisoners into two of the cells and dubbed the third cell a special privilege cell.
Prisoners who had the guard’s favor were allowed into the special privilege cell. In there, the beds the guards had removed from the other cells were replaced. They could also brush their teeth and use the sinks to wash—both things the guards wouldn’t let the prisoners in the other cells do. They’d also restrict any but the prisoners in the special privilege cell from eating from time to time so as to help give the sense that it was, well, a special privilege to be in that cell.
In the afternoon of the second day, the guards really messed with the prisoners heads by taking all of the “good” prisoners in the special privilege cell and putting them back in the other “bad” cells. Then they took a few of the former “bad” prisoners and put them in the special privilege cell.
This tactic, which is something that real prison guards do, was successful in making the prisoners who had led the rebellion think that perhaps some of the other prisoners who were transferred from the “bad” to “good” cells must’ve done something to earn that transfer. Obviously they must’ve snitched on the other prisoners.
Of course, they’d done nothing of the sort, but it didn’t matter. The prisoners began to break apart into groups that didn’t trust each other. As a result, it was much easier for only three guards on shift at any given time to keep all nine prisoners from rebelling together.
So while the specifics of what happened in day two might’ve been different from what we saw in the movie, the gist of guards exercising their power over the prisoners pretty quickly was very true.
And just like what we saw in the movie, by the end of the second day it was more than just an experiment. In the minds of all participants, it was a real prison with real guards and real prisoners.
In the movie, on day three we learn that one of the prisoners, Benjy, is sick. He’s played by Ethan Cohn in the film, and after falling ill he admits to Adrien Brody’s character that he’s diabetic. He needs insulin.
As you can probably guess, Benjy isn’t real. Neither is the situation of one of the prisoners secretly being diabetic. Dr. Zimbardo and other doctors at Stanford had effectively scanned all of the participants for health before being selected, so there were no immediate health threats like we saw in the movie.
However, that doesn’t mean the intense situations didn’t cause mental health issues. And like the movie implies, that started to show itself on day three.
It was a student named Douglas Korpi. Of course, inside the experiment he wasn’t Douglas. He was Prisoner #8612, and by the third day he started to break down into intense fits of crying and screaming uncontrollably. He asked Dr. Zimbardo if he could leave the experiment.
Interestingly, the guards and prisoners weren’t the only ones who had started to conform to their new roles. Dr. Zimbardo had himself taken on the role of prison Superintendent, and along with his prison consultants—the former ex-cons who’d help design the experiment along with some other Stanford University professors—had all started to feel like they were actually controlling a prison.
So when Prisoner #8612 came to them asking to leave, their first instinct was distrust. They thought he was faking his mental breakdowns just so he could be released.
Instead of offering to release Prisoner #8612, they offered a deal. In exchange for being an informant on the other prisoners, Dr. Zimbardo and his team would make sure the guards didn’t harass Prisoner #8612 anymore. They asked him to go back to his cell and think over their offer.
An unintended consequence of this was that when Prisoner #8612 returned to his cell, he told the others in his cell that he wasn’t allowed to leave. The message quickly spread that they couldn’t leave the experiment. What kind of experiment is this that you can’t leave? Maybe it actually is a prison.
Throughout the day, Prisoner #8612 continued to scream and go into fits. Finally, Dr. Zimbardo was convinced he wasn’t faking and let him be released.
The movie doesn’t mention this at all, but it was also on day three when Dr. Zimbardo’s team had set up a family visitation as part of the experiment. Since things had started to get bad, they were afraid the parents would pull their kids from the experiment if they saw how things really were.
So all of the prisoners washed, shaved and were ordered to clean their cells. About a dozen visitors came to see the “prisoners”, and were made to wait for about half an hour before being let in. They were also limited to ten minutes of visiting time—again, trying to keep things as realistic as possible.
None of the parents tried to pull their kids. Instead, to the surprise of Dr. Zimbardo and his team, after seeing how distressed they were, some of the parents tried to appeal to the prison authorities to make the situation better. Never did they question “the system”, and instead they complied with the rules.
Back in the movie, the events during day four continue to escalate matters. In an attempt to make an example out of Travis, Barris and the other guards force him to clean the toilet. Meanwhile, another guard, Chase, tries to get one of the prisoners named Oscar, who’s played by Jason Lew, to give him oral sex.
That didn’t happen.
Well, the second thing. The cleaning the toilet thing happened.
After Prisoner #8612 was released on the third day, one of the guards overheard prisoners talking about Prisoner #8612 returning to break out the rest of the prisoners. Immediately, the guard thought that Prisoner #8612 had been faking all along and reported this to the rest of the authorities.
Dr. Zimbardo would later admit this is where he started to fail in his duty as a psychological doctor. Instead of merely recording the events, after hearing of the supposed return of Prisoner #8612 to help the prisoners escape, he acted like a prison Superintendent.
He went back the Palo Alto Police Department who had helped arrest the participants to begin with, and asked if he could transfer his prisoners to their jail. They refused due to insurance reasons.
Later, Dr. Zimbardo would recall how upset he was that two corrections institutions couldn’t help each other out. The mere fact that he put his little prison on par with an actual police station shows how much he’d fallen into the role. It wasn’t just a role anymore. It was real.
Without the help of the police, Dr. Zimbardo returned to his prison and with the guard’s help chained all of the prisoners together, put bags over their heads and moved them to the fifth floor of the building. Meanwhile, as the prisoners were being watched by some of the guards in a storage room, the rest of the guards along with Dr. Zimbardo and the other prison authorities got to work disassembling the prison.
The plan was for when Prisoner #8612 arrived to break his fellow prisoners free, he’d arrive to Dr. Zimbardo sitting alone in the hallway. After explaining the experiment was over and everyone was sent home, Dr. Zimbardo would send Prisoner #8612 away. Then they’d bring the prisoners back, set up the prison again and double the guards on duty.
That never happened.
With the plan ready, Dr. Zimbardo waited in an empty hallway. Prisoner #8612 never came. The rumored escape plan was just that, a rumor. It never happened.
What did happen is that one of Dr. Zimbardo’s colleagues at the Stanford Psychology Department entered. He’d apparently heard about the experiment and wanted to check in on his friend and colleague, Dr. Zimbardo, to see how it was going. On the other hand, Dr. Zimbardo got really upset with the psychologist for interrupting him right at the moment when he was expecting a prison break.
After explaining what was going on, Dr. Zimbardo recalled his colleague, a psychologist named Gordon Bower, asked one simple question. What’s the independent variable in this study?
That set Dr. Zimbardo off. He ushered Dr. Bower out and without a prison break he and the other guards brought the prisoners back and set about forcing them to clean toilets with their bare hands.
But that question kept nagging at the back of Dr. Zimbardo’s mind.
In the movie, during day five things start to spiral out of control. One of the guards, Bosch, who’s played by David Banner, is beaten by the other guards for trying to help get Benjy’s insulin. Barris then announces that Bosch will be joining the prisoner population.
This causes Travis to protest, who rushes to a camera to exclaim the experiment is over. In a flurry, the guards pull Travis down and Benjy rushes the guards to get off his friend. It’s an instantaneous reaction when Barris hits Benjy on the head with a nightstick. A bloodied Benjy falls to the ground.
None of that’s true. None of the guards became prisoners and none of the prisoners were bloodied with a nightstick.
But things did continue to escalate.
Like the movie shows, there was a new prisoner added. But he wasn’t a guard. After Prisoner #8612 left, another prisoner was brought in immediately from the reserve list. This was Clay Ramsey, or Prisoner #416.
Coming into the situation from the outside world, Prisoner #416 immediately wanted back out. Told by the other prisoners that it was a real prison and once he was in he couldn’t get back out, Prisoner #416 staged a protest by refusing to eat.
So I guess in some ways that’s similar to what we saw Adrien Brody’s character do on day two in the movie.
The guards tried to get Prisoner #416 to eat by putting him in solitary confinement and even turning other prisoners against him. While he was in solitary, Dave Eshleman said he’d release Prisoner #416 from solitary if they gave up their blankets. None of the prisoners were willing to do that.
Later that day, on day five, Dr. Zimbardo asked a former prison chaplain to come to his prison and talk to the prisoners. During the questioning, it became even more clear how realistic the situation had become. When asked how the prisoners would get out, the response was that the only way to get out of prison was to get help from a lawyer. Some prisoners went so far as to ask the chaplain to help them get legal assistance.
Oh, and none of the prisoners introduced themselves to the chaplain as their real names. They all used the prisoner ID numbers without being prompted.
Well, not all of them. One of the prisoners, Prisoner #819, claimed he was sick and wanted to see a doctor instead of the chaplain. After much persuasion, he agreed to go talk to Dr. Zimbardo, who was always referred to as the Superintendent, and the chaplain. Then he broke down.
As Dr. Zimbardo was taking Prisoner #819 to get something to eat, guard Dave Eshleman orchestrated a chant with the rest of the prisoners. They kept chanting that Prisoner #819 is a bad prisoner over and over.
He heard it and began sobbing. Dr. Zimbardo suggested he leave, but now it was Prisoner #819 who refused to go. He wanted to show to his fellow prisoners that he wasn’t a bad prisoner.
Dr. Zimbardo explained he’s not Prisoner #819. Those are students, not other prisoners. This isn’t a prison. This is just an experiment.
After this, he agreed to leave and Dr. Zimbardo started to realize the experiment wouldn’t last the full two weeks.
Day six is when everything comes to a climax in the movie. There’s a prison riot, the guards flee and poor Benjy dies. As you can probably guess, none of that is true.
No one died during the experiment.
What happened was that on the evening of day five, Dr. Zimbardo got a visit from parents of one of the prisoners. They demanded he contact a lawyer to get their son out. Apparently the chaplain had told the parents a lawyer was the only way they’d be able to get their son out. Considering the chaplain had been there that day, that tells you how fast they responded.
And understandably so—none of the students had done anything wrong!
In the movie, everything ends much in the same way it began. After the brawl between prisoners and guards, the red lights go off and a garage door opens. Then a bus comes and picks them all up and takes them away from the prison.
I’m sure I don’t even need to say it, but I will anyway: all of that is made up.
In truth, the final straw was when Dr. Christina Maslach, a colleague of Dr. Zimbardo’s at Stanford, came to help with the experiment. Her role was to conduct some interviews with the guards and prisoners. She knew about the experiment, as did many others at Stanford, but this was her first time going into the prison environment.
When she saw the prisoners being chained together and bags put on their heads for a simple toilet run, she spoke out immediately. Dr. Zimbardo would later recall that they had about 50 people outside the experiment interact with the prison. From police to the parents to chaplains, Dr. Maslach was the very first to speak up.
Later, Dr. Maslach said she was in tears over what she saw. Even worse, her colleagues involved in the experiment mocked her for speaking out. She recalled having second thoughts about her relationship with the man who was leading the experiment—yes, she was seeing Dr. Zimbardo at the time.
After six days, on August 20th, 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo finally put an end to the Stanford prison experiment.
Although the experiment may have ended prematurely, it’s affects live on to this day.
The year after the study’s end, in 1972, Dr. Christina Maslach and Dr. Philip Zimbardo were married. Although in recent years, Dr. Maslach has transitioned into studies around why and how people get burned out at their jobs, Dr. Zimbardo has continued to publish books, interviews and a wide range of influential materials from the experiment.
I wish I could say everyone lived happily ever after, but this is a story that has a rather conflicting ending.
While many of the participants in the study have understandably wanted to stay anonymous, it was an experience that had effects on everyone involved.
Prisoner #8612, the very first prisoner who was released from the experiment, would go on to become a respected forensic psychologist in San Francisco, then a consultant for judges trying to determine if they should approve a prisoners motion for release.
Perhaps the biggest change that the Stanford prison experiment has brought about was when Congress was directly influenced by the experiment to change the law so juveniles accused of federal crimes can’t be put into cells with adult prisoners prior to their trial.
Along with undergraduate students, Dr. Zimbardo also produced a documentary called Quiet Rage about the experiment that’s still used in military and law enforcement entities as a means of training their personnel about what prison life is really like.
Despite these positive changes, Dr. Zimbardo has endured an onslaught of criticisms from peers and the general public alike. Many have likened the prison experiment to an experiment Stanley Milgram did in 1965 to see if people would be willing to deliver electric shocks to others simply because they’re being told to do so—it’s their job. This study found eerily similar results to Dr. Zimbardo’s in that, as it turned out, two thirds of those involved in Milgram’s experiment were willing to deliver fatal levels of electric shocks to a stranger.
As a little side note, Stanley Milgram was a high school classmate of Dr. Zimbardo.
To this day, the Stanford prison experiment is considered a highly controversial topic. Were guards like Dave Eshelman and even Dr. Zimbardo evil, sadistic people?
Or is this an example of how good people can drift into doing evil things when they’re “just doing their job”? Should we be allowed to perform human experiments like this?
It might be easy to say an experiment like the one done at Stanford was unethical and should’ve never happened in the first place, let alone ever have a similar study take place again. Some would argue that’s not a question so easily answered.
Even Dr. Zimbardo has admitted to being conflicted about the ethical nature of the experiment. On one hand, he explained in an article in the Stanford News that a lot of research is becoming pencil and paper tests, and it’s really hard to truly understand how humans behave in certain situations if you simply ask them the questions.
At one speech, Dr. Zimbardo stated that he believes the prison experiment was simultaneously ethical and unethical. He went on to explain that it was ethical because it was fully approved by the university. There wasn’t any deception about what was being done, everyone was told that if they were picked to be prisoners they’d have their rights stripped and likely only have minimal food for the duration of the study.
Everything was explained as much as possible and everyone agreed. Moreover, as we learned about a little bit ago, there were some 50 or so people who were outsiders and came to check on the progress at some point. What more could you ask of a study?
On the other hand, Dr. Zimbardo readily admits that the study was unethical because, “people suffered and others were allowed to inflict pain and humiliation on their fellows over an extended period of time.”
Probably one of the more recent comparisons to the Stanford prison experiment was in 2003 when the prisoner torture and abuse came to light at the Abu Ghraib prison. After damning evidence of abuse by way of photos of prisoners subjected horrific conditions—naked prisoners, rape, sodomy, even murder by the guards—when this started to be released to the media, the public demanded that someone had to be held accountable.
A number of international trials began, spanning multiple years and accusations started, going all the way up to the then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. One of the expert witnesses called on to testify about human behavior in prison during those trials?
Dr. Philip Zimbardo.