Lessons From the Past

The Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) revisited

Posted Jun 29, 2016

phil zimbardo
Source: phil zimbardo

With the recent cable television release of The Stanford Prison Experiment, a film based on the controversial scientific research I conducted forty-five years ago, my colleague Rose Sword suggested we devote this column to some of the lessons I gleaned from that investigation. If you haven’t seen the film (this isn’t really a spoiler), I am portrayed as indifferent to the suffering of “my prisoners”, and obsessed with the social situational dynamics to the point of forgetting that the student-participants were actually young people with feelings. And I unwittingly became part of my own experiment—I too became a research “subject.”

It’s important to note that I consulted prior to, as well as through some of the filming and was aware the movie would be authentic. I now believe that it is about 90% right on in capturing what really happened back in August, 1971. In other words, it’s true—over time I became a bad guy and obsessed.

My behavior at the time aside, the Stanford prison experiment (SPE) drove me to extensively pursue the question: Why do good people do evil things? After three decades of research on this subject, I recorded my findings in The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (Random House, 2007). But the SPE also led me to study why, in challenging situations, some people heroically step forward to help others—oftentimes complete strangers—while others stand by passively, watch, and do nothing. The psychological time warp experienced by participants of the SPE—not knowing if it was day or night or what day it was—lead to my new research program on understanding the nature of our individual time perspectives and how these different time zones affect our decisions—for better or worse, typically without our awareness. Rethinking shyness as a self-imposed psychological prison led me to conduct research on shyness in adults, and then create a clinic in the community designed to cure shyness—still in operation at Palo Alto University. To share what I learned about psychological time, I have written (with co-authors) two books: The Time Paradox and The Time Cure; and also Shyness: What it is, what to do about it, to help shy people.

The Experiment in a Nutshell

phil zimbardo
Source: phil zimbardo

In August 1971, I lead a team of graduate students at Stanford University to determine the psychological effects of being a guard or a prisoner. Our newspaper ad attracted 75 students who wanted to make $15 a day to be in study of prison life. We randomly assigned 24 of these psychologically normal and healthy college students (based on pre assessments) to play the role of guard or inmate for two weeks in a simulated prison located in the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department building. But the guards quickly became creatively evil and sadistic and many prisoners began having extreme stress reactions and had to be released. In addition, I had become so caught up in my role as Prison Superintendent, who did not limit the guards’ use of psychological abuse, that the experiment had to be shut down after only six days.

Challenging the Truth

There seems to be powerful silent barriers to dealing with new truths emanating from psychological laboratories and field experiments that tell us things about how the mind works, which challenge our basic assumptions. We want to believe our decisions are wisely informed, that our actions are rational, that our personal moral conscience buffers us against tyrannical authorities, and also we prefer to insist on the dominating influence of our character despite social circumstances. Yes, those personal beliefs are sometimes true, but often they are not—especially when we are in unfamiliar situations or playing new roles. Nevertheless we continue rigidly defending them to the extent that doing so can get us in trouble individually and collectively. Let’s see how.

Denial and Finger Pointing

When we discover two of three ordinary American citizens administered extreme electric shocks to an innocent victim on the relentless commands of a heartless authority, we say, “no way, not me.” Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram’s obedience to authority research has been in the public arena for decades, yet we ignore its message of the power of unjust authority in undercutting our moral conscience. Similarly, the SPE research made vivid the power of hostile situational forces in overwhelming dispositional tendencies toward compassion and human dignity. Still, many who insist on honoring the dominance of character over circumstance reject its situational power message.

In 2004, people around the world witnessed online photos of horrific actions of American Military Police guards in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib Prison against prisoners they should have been caring for. It was portrayed as the work of a “few bad apples” according to military brass and Bush administration spokesmen. I publicly challenged this traditional focus on individual dispositions by portraying American servicemen as good apples that were forced to operate in a Bad Barrel (the Situation) created by Bad Barrel Makers (the System). I became an expert witness in the defense of the Staff Sergeant in charge of the night shift, where all the abuses took place. In that capacity I had personal access to the defendant, to all 1000 photos, many videos, to all dozen military investigations, and more. It was sufficient to validate my view of that prison as a replica of the Stanford prison experiment—on steroids, and my defendant, Chip Frederick, as a really Good Apple corrupted by being forced to function 12-hours every night for many months in the worse barrel imaginable. My situation-based testimony to the military Court Martial hearings helped reduce the severity of his sentence.

The Stanford Prison Experiment Film

phil zimbardo
Source: phil zimbardo

The film stars Billy Crudup as me and Olivia Thrilby as Christina Maslach, the whistle-blowing graduate student (whom I later married) who pointed out the experiment had gone awry and had changed me to such a degree that she didn’t know who I was anymore. She challenged my humanity openly and said she did not want to continue our romantic relationship if this strange person was the real me. I then decided on the spot to terminate the study the next morning.

What is special about The Stanford Prison Experiment movie is the way it enables viewers to look through the observation window as if they were part of the prison staff watching this remarkable drama slowly unfold, and simultaneously observe those observers as well. They are witnesses to the gradual transformations taking place, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, and guard shift-by-guard shift. Viewers see what readers of The Lucifer Effect book account can only imagine. As these young students become the characters inhabited in their roles and dressed in their costumes, as prisoners or guards, a Pirandellian drama emerges.

The fixed line between Good, like us, and Evil, like them, is relentlessly blurred as it becomes ever more permeable. Ordinary guys soon slip into doing extraordinarily bad things to other guys, who are actually just like them except for a random coin flip. Other healthy guys soon get sick mentally, being unable to cope with the learned helplessness imposed on them in that unique, unfamiliar setting. They do not offer comfort to their buddies as they break down, nor do those who adopt a “good guard” persona ever do anything to limit the sadistic excesses of the cruel guards heading their shifts.

Finally, the movie also tracks the emotional changes in the lead character—me—as his compassion and intellectual curiosity get distilled and submerged over time. The initial roles of research creator-objective observer are dominated by power and insensitivity to prisoner suffering in the new role of Prison Superintendent. The six-day process of transformations in the original experiment is crunched down to 2 hours, but the magic of the movie’s fine acting, sensitive directing and acute editing psychologically expands that time frame’s full force. We feel the full power of social situations dominating all individual personalities. All viewers are encouraged to ponder:

  • What kind of Guard would I be?
  • What kind of Prisoner?
  • What kind of Superintendent?
  • And would I have blown the whistle to end this drama sooner, or not?

My hope is that this movie can do what my writings about this special research into human nature have not been fully able to do. Perhaps viewing and reliving this adventure will enable the general public to better appreciate the value of what “research shows” about mind, behavior and the pervasive power of situational forces.

Here is a link to the SPE film trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7LviGTHud5w

Heroic Imagination

phil zimbardo
Source: phil zimbardo

I should add that along with continuing research in time perspectives and time perspective therapy, my new mission in life has been to empower everyone to wisely resist negative situational forces and evil by becoming Everyday Heroes in Training. Our non-profit Heroic Imagination Project (HIP) https://www.HeroicImagination.com teaches ordinary people how to stand up, speak out and take effective actions in challenging situations in their lives.

Working and learning together, we can create a new generation of ordinary everyday heroes who will do extra-ordinary deeds of daily heroism in their families, schools, businesses, and communities.


Phil Zimbardo

Visit the official Stanford Prison Experiment website to learn more about the experiment that inspired the film: www. prisonexp.org

Learn more about yourself, how to cope with stress and anxiety, and live a more fulfilling life, visit www.discoveraetas.com.

For in depth information about how your life is affected by the mental time zones that you live in, please check out our website: www.timeperspectivetherapy.org, and our books: The Time Cure at www.timecure.com and The Time Paradox at www.thetimeparadox.com