You’ve probably heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment from a textbook, a documentary, or maybe you even saw the 2015 feature film of the same name. If not, this was an experiment carried out in 1971 by Stanford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo. The idea was to hire students to act as either prisoners or guards for two weeks to see how they would react to the experience. But after just six days, the experiment was ended. The student guards had immediately become vicious authoritarians toward the “prisoners,” some of whom had psychological breakdowns which were caught on camera. The conclusion drawn at the time by Zimbardo and many others was that human behavior is often contingent on the situation we find ourselves in, not the personality of individuals.
But in recent years the extent to which the entire experiment was a coached, misleading lie has come to light. Earlier this month author Ben Blum published a lengthy piece at Medium outlining some of what he uncovered:
It was late in the evening of August 16th, 1971, and twenty-two-year-old Douglas Korpi, a slim, short-statured Berkeley graduate with a mop of pale, shaggy hair, was locked in a dark closet in the basement of the Stanford psychology department, naked beneath a thin white smock bearing the number 8612, screaming his head off.
“I mean, Jesus Christ, I’m burning up inside!” he yelled, kicking furiously at the door. “Don’t you know? I want to get out! This is all fucked up inside! I can’t stand another night! I just can’t take it anymore!”…
The SPE is often used to teach the lesson that our behavior is profoundly affected by the social roles and situations in which we find ourselves. But its deeper, more disturbing implication is that we all have a wellspring of potential sadism lurking within us, waiting to be tapped by circumstance. It has been invoked to explain the massacre at My Lai during the Vietnam War, the Armenian genocide, and the horrors of the Holocaust. And the ultimate symbol of the agony that man helplessly inflicts on his brother is Korpi’s famous breakdown, set off after only 36 hours by the cruelty of his peers.
There’s just one problem: Korpi’s breakdown was a sham.
“Anybody who is a clinician would know that I was faking,” he told me last summer, in the first extensive interview he has granted in years. “If you listen to the tape, it’s not subtle. I’m not that good at acting. I mean, I think I do a fairly good job, but I’m more hysterical than psychotic.”
Now a forensic psychologist himself, Korpi told me his dramatic performance in the SPE was indeed inspired by fear, but not of abusive guards. Instead, he was worried about failing to get into grad school.
Korpi had signed up for the experiment for the money, which was good, hoping he’d be left alone in a cell where he could study for his GRE’s which were coming up in a little over a week. But once inside, the “guards” refused to give him his books. He wanted out of the experiment so he could study, but when he went to Zimbardo, he was told he couldn’t leave. So Korpi and two other prisoners began acting up. As Clay Ramsay said, “I regarded it as a real prison because [in order to get out], you had to do something that made them worry about their liability.”
So Korpi’s mental breakdown was him acting crazy so he could get out and get back to studying. But doesn’t the behavior of the “guards” prove at least some of the study was accurate? After all, they did refuse to give Korpi his books.
Only the behavior of the guards was coached by a grad student who designed most of the experiment. The guard who became most abusive, known as “John Wayne” said he based his performance, which included a fake accent, on characters he’d seen in the prison film Cool Hand Luke:
Though most guards gave lackluster performances, some even going out of their way to do small favors for the prisoners, one in particular rose to the challenge: Dave Eshelman, whom prisoners nicknamed “John Wayne” for his Southern accent and inventive cruelty. But Eshelman, who had studied acting throughout high school and college, has always admitted that his accent was just as fake as Korpi’s breakdown. His overarching goal, as he told me in an interview, was simply to help the experiment succeed.
“I took it as a kind of an improv exercise,” Eshelman said. “I believed that I was doing what the researchers wanted me to do, and I thought I’d do it better than anybody else by creating this despicable guard persona. I’d never been to the South, but I used a southern accent, which I got from Cool Hand Luke.”
An attempt to replicate the results in 2001 failed and actually showed almost the opposite results:
In another blow to the experiment’s scientific credibility, Haslam and Reicher’s attempted replication, in which guards received no coaching and prisoners were free to quit at any time, failed to reproduce Zimbardo’s findings. Far from breaking down under escalating abuse, prisoners banded together and won extra privileges from guards, who became increasingly passive and cowed. According to Reicher, Zimbardo did not take it well when they attempted to publish their findings in the British Journal of Social Psychology.
“We discovered that he was privately writing to editors to try to stop us getting published by claiming that we were fraudulent,” Reicher told me.
Given all of this, why is this still the most famous and frequently taught and cited psychological experiment in history? The answer has to do with the media and politics:
Deviating from scientific protocol, Zimbardo and his students had published their first article about the experiment not in an academic journal of psychology but in The New York Times Magazine, sidestepping the usual peer review. Famed psychologist Erich Fromm, unaware that guards had been explicitly instructed to be “tough,” nonetheless opined that in light of the obvious pressures to abuse, what was most surprising about the experiment was how few guards did…
In the wake of the prison uprisings at San Quentin and Attica, Zimbardo’s message was perfectly attuned to the national zeitgeist. A critique of the criminal justice system that shunted blame away from inmates and guards alike onto a “situation” defined so vaguely as to fit almost any agenda offered a seductive lens on the day’s social ills for just about everyone. Reform-minded liberals were hungry for evidence that people who committed crimes were driven to do so by the environment they’d been born into, which played into their argument that reducing urban crime would require systemic reform — a continuation of Johnson’s “war on poverty” — rather than the “war on crime” that President Richard M. Nixon had campaigned on. “When I heard of the study,” recalls Frances Cullen, one of the preeminent criminologists of the last half century, “I just thought, ‘Well of course that’s true.’ I was uncritical. Everybody was uncritical.” In Cullen’s field, the Stanford prison experiment provided handy evidence that the prison system was fundamentally broken. “It confirmed what people already believed, which was that prisons were inherently inhumane,” he said.
Zimbardo himself even admitted he was a “social activist” looking to impact prison reform policy:
He at first denied that the experiment had had any political motive, but after I read him an excerpt from a press release disseminated on the experiment’s second day explicitly stating that it aimed to bring awareness to the need for reform, he admitted that he had probably written it himself under pressure from Carlo Prescott, with whom he had co-taught a summer school class on the psychology of imprisonment.
“During that course, I began to see that prisons are a waste of time, and money, and lives,” Zimbardo said. “So yes, I am a social activist, and prison reform was always important in my mind. It was not the reason to do the study.”
There was always plenty of reason for skepticism of the methods and the results, but the findings fit with what social engineers on the left wanted to believe about crime and punishment and prisons. So the Stanford Prison Experiment was accepted uncritically and given a warm welcome from the media for nearly 50 years. It seems to me there are some lessons that can be drawn from this about people’s willingness to take advantage of the unearned authority presented to them but those lessons have nothing to do with prisons.