Swans Commentary » swans.com July 4, 2011  



Challenging The Stanford Prison Experiment
(Part I of III)


by Michael Barker





"Until recently, psychologists and historians have agreed that ordinary people commit evil when, under the influence of leaders and groups, they become blind to the consequences of their actions. This consensus has become so strong that it is repeated, almost as a mantra, in psychology textbooks and in society at large."

—Stephen Reicher and Alexander Haslam, 2008.


(Swans - July 4, 2011)   The Stanford Prison Experiment is one the best known psychology experiments ever undertaken, and its depressing results allegedly confirmed that ordinary people "can be led to perpetrate atrocities not because they blindly follow orders, but because they conform blindly to what is expected of them as a group member." Yet, in the first complete retesting of the original prison experiment, Stephen Reicher and Alexander Haslam came to quite different conclusions, and argued that "it is not valid to conclude that people mindlessly and helplessly succumb to brutality." Instead, they observed, that the available evidence "suggest[s] that brutality occurs when people identify strongly with groups that have a brutal ideology." This is quite different from the point made by the Stanford Prison Experiment -- and other related studies, like Stanley Milgram's work on obedience to authority -- about conformity and human nature. Yes, people do great wrong, but they do so because they truly believe that such actions are warranted, "because they actively identify with groups whose ideology justifies and condones the oppression and destruction of others." (1)

Reicher and Haslam make the case that Philip Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment, which was conducted in 1971, therefore not only acted to misrepresent a crucial issue in social psychology, but "simultaneously served to suppress debate inside our discipline." Indeed, they note that the experiment worked to suppress debate because, firstly, "only a limited subset of the study's findings was ever exposed to detailed scientific scrutiny (in particular, none were published in mainstream, peer-reviewed psychology journals)"; and secondly, "ethical concerns made it exceptionally difficult to replicate the study in a way that allowed the issues it raised to be revisited in such a vivid empirical form." (2) Not surprisingly, Zimbardo has been extremely hostile to Reicher and Haslam's criticisms of his prison study, and after rejecting one of their academic articles for peer review -- an article that was eventually accepted for publication -- Zimbardo wrote that he "reluctantly accepted the editor's invitation" to prepare a commentary "on my evaluation of Rethinking the psychology of tyranny: The BBC Prison Study, following my reviewer's judgment of it as not acceptable for publication in any scientific journal..." In this commentary, nestled among his various other spurious criticisms, he goes so far as to refer to Reicher and Haslam's as "fraudulent" and as a "scientifically irresponsible 'made-for-TV-study'"; unfounded comments that were convincingly rebutted by Reicher and Haslam in a subsequent article. (3)

However, it is worth highlighting one of the most significant points made by Reicher and Haslam in their article that was "rejected" by Zimbardo, as they underscore the "profound and troubling social implications" of the traditional interpretation of the Stanford Prison Experiment. They continue:

If people cannot help but act in terms of assigned role, it implies that they have little choice, and hence little responsibility, for their social actions. This makes it more difficult to hold tyrants to account for what they do. Moreover, in communicating the message that resistance is futile, the analysis discourages the oppressed from attempting to challenge tyranny. (p.6)

Later in their article Reicher and Haslam add that "in contrast to those who explain tyranny and other extreme social phenomena in terms of the psychological dysfunctionality of groups, we interpret them in terms of the dysfunctionality of group failure." Authoritarian solutions, "and the personalities that would promote them," Reicher and Haslam observed, thus increased in attractiveness "after attempts to make democracy work were seen to have failed." (4) To reiterate this point:

[I]t is when people cannot create a social system for themselves that they will more readily accept extreme solutions proposed by others. It is when groups lack the power to exercise choice that an authoritarian ideology that promises to create order for them appears more seductive. In short, it is the breakdown of groups and powerlessness that creates the conditions under which tyranny can triumph. (p.33)

It is in the light of such observations that I will now embark upon my own detailed critique of Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment; an exercise made easier by the fact that Zimbardo recently published a book entitled The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil (Rider Books, 2007), which for the first time ever tells the "full story" of the Stanford Prison Experiment. (5)

Manufacturing Torturers?

As Zimbardo informs his readers, the Stanford Prison Experiment was designed to assess "the extent to which the external features of an institutional setting could override the internal dispositions of the actors in that environment." The experiment thus attempted to assess "the extent to which ordinary, normal, healthy young men succumbed to, or were seduced by, the social forces inherent" in a bad system -- i.e., a prison. (6) Male students consequently volunteered for this experiment on the understanding that they would be paid $15 a day (which they thought would be "easy money") for the fourteen-day duration of the study; and through a process of random selection nine individuals were allocated roles as prison guards (two of whom were brothers, with three guards serving on each eight-hour shift), and nine as prisoners (with three students in each prison cell).

Yet while the volunteers thought that they would be making easy money, it is obvious that they did not really know what they were letting themselves in for. In fact, on the commencement of the experiment Zimbardo made it clear that psychological torture was to be a necessary precondition for the guards' participation in his experiment.

"We cannot physically abuse or torture them," I said. "We can create boredom. We can create a sense of frustration. We can create fear in them, to some degree. We can create a notion of the arbitrariness that governs their lives, which are totally controlled by us, by the system, by you, me, [Warden] Jaffe. They'll have no privacy at all, there will be constant surveillance -- nothing they do will go unobserved. They will have no freedom of action. They will be able to do nothing and say nothing that we don't permit. We're going to take away their individuality in various ways. They're going to be wearing uniforms, and at no time will anybody call them by name; they will have numbers and be called only by their numbers. In general, what all this should create in them is a sense of powerlessness. We have total power in the situation. They have none. ..." (p.55)

Zimbardo made it clear to the guards that he "wanted to create a psychological atmosphere that would capture some of the essential features characteristic" of a "real prison" where "prisoners can be beaten, electrically shocked, gang-raped, and sometimes even killed." And so during the guards' initial briefing Zimbardo and his researchers took it upon themselves to "suggest means of keeping the prisoners under control without using physical punishment." (7) As will become clear, Zimbardo demanded that the students act the part of tough prison guards. For instance, on Day 2 Zimbardo asked Warden Jaffe (one of the researchers supervising the experiment) to chastise one of the guards for not "being more responsive to the job..." Jaffe thus told the underperforming guard: "The guards have to know that every guard has to be what we call a 'tough guard.' The success of this experiment rides on the behavior of the guards to make it seem as realistic as possible." Without a doubt this strong external influence from the experimenters served to encourage and legitimize abusive behavior from the guards. Furthermore, detailed information on the type of tactics that the guards should utilize to control the prisoners was provided by Zimbardo's chief prison consultant, Carlo Prescott, who "had recently been paroled from San Quentin State Prison after serving seventeen years there, as well as time served at Folsom and Vacaville Prisons..." (8) These tactical tips amounted to something of a guidebook to psychological torture, and since participating in the experiment, Prescott has been highly critical of Zimbardo's research. In 2005, Prescott summed up some of his criticisms of the experiment, pointing out how ridiculous it was that people were horrified "at the behavior of the 'guards' when they were merely doing what Zimbardo and others, myself included, encouraged them to do at the outset or frankly established as ground rules." (See "The Lies of the Stanford Prison Experiment.")

Although Zimbardo had told the guards that they should not physically abuse the prisoners, when several of the guards did begin to do so, they were not reprimanded for their infractions, and so might rightfully have concluded that they were simply acting their part as tough guards. For example, in one unremarkable incident a guard pounds his club on the prison bars "almost smashing the hands of one of the prisoners, who pulls back just in time. Then, as in the rebellion in the morning of Day 2, John Landry [a guard] begins to spray the fire extinguisher with its skin-chilling carbon dioxide exhaust into Cell 2." On another occasion, while the guards force the prisoners to do press-ups, another guard "puts his foot on top of [prisoner Clay] 416's back as he goes up and pushes down hard on the backstroke. The others all seems to be surprised at this physical abuse." Yet despite the occurrence of such abuse, it is important to note that two of the nine guards (Geoff Landry and Markus) outright refused to follow instructions: "Geoff had done small favors for them [the prisoners], constantly distanced himself from the abusive actions of his night shift crewmates, and even stopped wearing his guard's sunglasses and military shirt. He even told us later that he had thought about asking to become a prisoner because he hated to be part of a system that was grinding other people down so badly." (9) Eric Fromm's critical commentary on Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment reinforces this point, as Fromm writes:

The authors believe it proves that the duration alone can within a few days transform normal people into abject, submissive individuals or into ruthless sadists. It seems to me that the experiment proves, if anything, rather the contrary. If in spite of the whole spirit of this mock prison which, according to the concept of the experiment was meant to be degrading and humiliating (obviously the guards must have caught on to this immediately), two thirds of the guards did not commit sadistic acts for personal "kicks", the experiment seems rather to prove that one can not transform people so easily into sadists by providing them with the proper situation. (10)

The experiment eventually ended prematurely (after just six days) due to escalating levels of abuse, and it was only at this point that Zimbardo recognized that it was his failure "to intervene more often" that had given the guards "implicit permission to go to extremes they did." As an afterthought he adds, "They might have avoided their abuses had they had better top-down surveillance." This statement, however, misses the point entirely, as it was his excellent all-pervasive top-down surveillance and guidance that ensured that their torture occurred in the first place -- as arguably the guards were simply fulfilling the role that was expected of them in the experiment. (11)

It is also significant that the single most abusive guard, eighteen-year-old guard Hellmann, admitted in the pre-experiment interview that the thing other people like least about him was his "impatience with stupidity, a total disregard for people whose life style I do not agree with." From this limited self-description Hellmann already sounds quite authoritarian and if this was combined with right-leaning politics it is quite likely that he would have thus had little patience for the left-wing student activists who led the prisoner revolts during the experiment (see later). And although at no point does Zimbardo discuss the relevance of his volunteers' political orientations, I would assume that such ideological differences would have had a strong impact on the guards willingness to abuse their prisoners.

Guard Hellman also presents an interesting case as someone who was particularly keen to follow Zimbardo's abusive orders, and he apparently took his role as an experimenter very seriously, recalling, after it was over:

Yes it has been more than an experiment. I had a chance at testing people's capabilities, pushing them to the breaking point under the guise of a correctional officer. It was not pleasant but I felt compelled out of my own fascination to test their reactions. I was conducting experiments on my own on many occasions. (p.192)

Later as part of a TV meeting with one of the prisoners he tortured, Hellman added: "Why didn't people say something when I started to abuse people? I started to get so profane, and still, people didn't say anything?" (12) Zimbardo's non-reflective response to this question is "Why indeed?" But while Zimbardo considered it to be the duty of the other guards to limit Hellman's abusive behavior, I would like to suggest that the people Hellman was actually referring to in the above statement were the people supervising the experiment, the people who exerted total control and authority over the every action of the guards by the way they alternatively ignored or reprimanded them.


[ed. Go to Part II.]


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1.  Stephen Reicher and Alexander Haslam, "Questioning the banality of evil," Psychologist, 21 (1), 2008, p.17, p.18, p.19. "Thus, in the specific case of the Stanford study, Zimbardo and colleagues argued that 'acts of guard aggression were emitted simply as a 'natural' consequence of being in the uniform of a 'guard' and asserting the power inherent in that role'." (p.17) With regard to historical studies, Reicher and Haslam draw attention to David Cesarani's study, Eichmann: His Life and Crimes (Heinemann, 2004), which suggested that Hannah Arendt's book Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) "was, at best, naive. Not least, this was because she only attended the start of his trial. In this, Eichmann worked hard to undermine the charge that he was a dangerous fanatic by presenting himself as an inoffensive pen-pusher. Arendt then left. Had she stayed, though, she (and we) would have discovered a very different Eichmann: a man who identified strongly with anti-semitism and Nazi ideology; a man who did not simply follow orders but who pioneered creative new policies; a man who was well aware of what he was doing and was proud of his murderous 'achievements'." (p.17)

An early critique of Milgram and the Zimbardo's work is provided in Eric Fromm's book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (Pimlico, 1997 [1973]). On Milgram's experiments in obedience to authority Fromm concludes: "The main result of Milgram's study seems to be one he does not stress: the presence of conscience in most subjects, and their pain when obedience made them act against their conscience. Thus, while the experiment can be interpreted as another proof of the easy dehumanization of man, the subjects' reactions show rather the contrary -- the presence of intense forces within them that find cruel behaviour intolerable." (p.86)  (back)

2.  Stephen Reicher and Alexander Haslam, "Debating the psychology of tyranny: fundamental issues of theory, perspective and science," British Journal of Social Psychology, 45, 2006, p.56.

"In common with recent theoretical developments in social psychology, they [Zimbardo and his researchers] contest the premise that group behaviour is necessarily uncontrolled, mindless and antisocial. In contrast, the results of the BBC prison study suggest that the way in which members of strong groups behave depends upon the norms and values associated with their specific social identity and may be either anti- or prosocial." Stephen Reicher and Alexander Haslam, "Rethinking the psychology of tyranny: the BBC Prison Study," (pdf) British Journal of Social Psychology, 45, 2006, p.33. "Behind the tyranny of the prison guards and the abasement of the prisoners in the SPE [Stanford Prison Experiment], there is a view of human beings as the psychological prisoners of society, in turn a working out of a dysfunctional and inescapable human nature. It is never put so bluntly in our textbooks and journals, but it is there and it exerts a pervasive influence and constraint on our ideas and limits our message to society." John Turner, "Tyranny, freedom and social structure: escaping our theoretical prisons," British Journal of Social Psychology, 45, 2006, p.46.  (back)

3.  Philip Zimbardo, "On rethinking the psychology of tyranny: The BBC prison study," British Journal of Social Psychology, 45, 2006, p.47. For a comprehensive rebuttal to Zimbardo's contribution, see Reicher and Haslam, "Debating the psychology of tyranny." They write: "In sum, Zimbardo's criticisms are reminiscent of one of the key stratagems for saving a failing position identified by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: 'if you observe that your opponent has taken up a line of argument that will end in your defeat... you must effect a change of debate' (2005, p. 95). Zimbardo consistently turns a conceptual debate about tyranny into a technical debate about prison conditions. But the conceptual debate is what is at issue." (p.58)

Zimbardo's book devotes just one paragraph to Reicher and Haslam's BBC Prison Experiment, and he refers to it as a "reality TV Pseudoexperiment." Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil (Rider Books, 2007), p.252.  (back)

4.  Reicher and Haslam, "Rethinking the psychology of tyranny, (pdf) " p.24, p.32.  (back)

5.  Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, p.20. For a scholarly critique of Zimbardo's book, see Joachim Krueger, "Review: Lucifer's last laugh: the devil is in the details," American Journal of Psychology, 121 (2), 2008. Krueger makes an interesting point when he writes: "Zimbardo announces that 'a large body of evidence in social psychology supports the concept that situational power triumphs over individual power' (p. x). Not really. The meta-analysis Zimbardo cites shows that on average the effect size of social influence is r = .13, which is less than the effect on personality variables, r = .21." (p.338)  (back)

6.  Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, p.195.  (back)

7.  Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, p.55, p.54. Paradoxically, given the extreme level of psychological torture undertaken under his guidance Zimbardo writes: "Of course, compared to the toxic and lethal nature of real civilian and military prisons, our Stanford Prison was relatively benign." (p.229)  (back)

8.  Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, p.65, p.66.  (back)

9.  Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, p.112, p.126, p.182.  (back)

10.  Eric Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, p.93.  (back)

11.  Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, p.183. For a related criticism, see Ali Banuazizi and Siamak Movahedi, "Interpersonal Dynamics in a Simulated Prison: A Methodological Analysis," American Psychologist, 30 (2), 1975, pp.152-60. One should add that the Stanford Prison Experiment was undertaken "at a time when concern with the necessity of major institutional reforms in this field was at its highest among both the professionals and the concerned citizenry." Furthermore, although Banuazizi and Movahedi endorsed "the effort by Zimbardo and his coinvestigators to promote a structural analysis of the problems of imprisonment," they critiqued the conclusions of the prison study "on primarily methodological grounds..." (p.152) They suggest that "To account for the behavioral outcomes of the experiment, we offer the following alternative explanation: (a) The subjects entered the experiment carrying strong social stereotypes of how guards and prisoners act and relate to one another in a real prison; (b) in the experimental context itself, there were numerous cues pointing to the experimental hypothesis, the experimenters' expectations, and possibly, the experimenters' ideological commitment; and thus complying with the actual or perceived demands in the experimental situation, and acting on the basis of their own role-related expectancies, the subjects produced data highly in accord with the experimental hypothesis." (p.156)  (back)

12.  Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, p.194.  (back)


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Published July 4, 2011