Swans Commentary » swans.com July 18, 2011  



Challenging The Stanford Prison Experiment
Undermining Prisoner Solidarity (Part II of III)


by Michael Barker





[ed. Read Part I.]


(Swans - July 18, 2011)   As we have seen, Zimbardo manufactured an abusive prison environment designed to create tough prison guards who would torture their prisoners. So this section of my article will now ask, "what role did the researchers fulfill in their efforts to turn the student volunteers into 'real' prisoners?" By reviewing the "full story" of the Stanford Prison Experiment, I will demonstrate how Zimbardo and his colleagues created "real" prisoners by striving to undermine their ability to work together to resist abuse.

Before moving to specific details of how Zimbardo's prisoners were pacified, one should observe that this bias against the prisoners' humanity and attempts at cooperation is most apparent in the manner by which he describes his experiment. This is because despite monitoring the prisoners twenty-four hours a day, and dedicating 138 pages (pp.40-178) of his book to providing a rich narrative description of the experiment, it is quite clear that Zimbardo's overriding focus was on illustrating instances of prisoner oppression. (1) In fact, while Zimbardo provides an exquisite and disturbing picture of the brutality of the three toughest guards (Hellman, Arnett, and Burdan), at no point does he transcribe any inter-prisoner dialogue that might shed light on how the prisoners organized to resist their abuse. Evidently Zimbardo was intent on sidelining both the prisoners and the guards' resistance to his coercive experimental protocol. Consequently, by drawing upon Zimbardo's description of the experiment, I will show how the initially-strong resolve of the prisoners to resist their brutal confinement was deliberately broken down by Zimbardo and his tough guards.

Firstly, as mentioned earlier, it is important to acknowledge that the ideological orientation of the prisoners vis-à-vis the guards would have influenced the evolution of the experiment; a point that is all the more significant because at least a third of Zimbardo's apparently "ordinary" and "normal" prisoners had a background of radical left-wing activism -- these individuals being Doug-8612, Stewart-819, and Paul-5704 (discussed below). The inclusion of such left-wing activists in the prison population would have had even more significant consequences if conservative (or anti-communist) students had been randomly selected to serve as guards -- an outcome that seems quite likely given the conservative nature of most university students. (2) Moreover, the recruitment process itself may be considered problematic given that other research has demonstrated that more authoritarian students tend to self-select for prison-related experiments. (3) Unfortunately though, ideological information is not explicitly divulged or discussed in Zimbardo's analysis of the Stanford Prison Experiment. This is a major oversight, and such shortcomings should be born in mind during the following discussion of prisoner resistance and the role played by revolutionary activists.

Prisoner Doug-8612 was the most easily identified left-wing revolutionary enrolled in the Stanford Prison Experiment. Doug in fact admitted that he was participating in the experiment because he wanted to "see how I deal with being oppressed as a political prisoner," and prior to the experiment he had described himself as a socialist interested in revolutionary politics. (4) Thus it is appropriate that during the prisoners' first meal in prison, Doug attempted to try "to talk the others into going on a sit-down strike" -- a strike did not eventuate, because according to Zimbardo, "they are all too hungry and tired to go along right now." (Note: The prisoners had not been fed lunch on Day 1.) Later that night Doug had the privilege of being the first person to be dumped into solitary confinement, and as Doug was manhandled into "the Hole" Zimbardo writes that he gives "the clenched-fist salute of dissident radicals as he shouts, 'All power to the people!'" (5)

Zimbardo identifies another "rebellious prisoner," Stewart-819, who "showed his stuff" on his first day in prison when he signed a letter to his family, "All power to the oppressed brothers, victory is inevitable." The following day, Stewart spends his first time in the Hole after "acting up" during early morning psychological torture, and according to Zimbardo, Stewart "goes into solitary... with a defiant swagger." Not long after this incident, it is evident that Doug was becoming increasingly distressed with the abusive prison environment, and he "reflexively lunges at [a guard], screaming" in frustration. In response, the guard pushes Doug away "and hits him in the chest with his fist," and then with the aid of the other guards they "roughly throw" him into the Hole to join Stewart. (6) "Our rebels," Zimbardo reports, "begin to plot a revolution in the dark, tight confines" of the Hole. Here one should observe that Zimbardo provides no details as to what the plotters actually say, and he totally ignores the physical violence that the guard has used against Doug; that is, Zimbardo does not reprimand the guards for their abusive behavior.

As a result of being confined to the Hole, Doug and Stewart forfeit their breakfast -- which means that since being arrested the previous morning they have only had one "slim meal." The other prisoners are clearly concerned with the mistreatment of Doug and Stewart and during morning breakfast they "violate the 'no talking rule,' by talking and discussing a hunger strike to show prisoner solidarity." As it turns out a strike does not ensue, but after breakfast, when Stewart is released from the Hole, he is joined by Paul-5704 and Hubbie-7258, who tear their ID numbers from the front of their uniforms and "protest loudly against the unacceptable living conditions." The guards respond quickly, stripping them stark naked until their numbers have been replaced on their prison smocks. (7)

At this early stage in the experiment, it is apparent that most of the prisoners are rebelling against the brutal strictures of the prison, and when the next shift of guards arrives on duty (at ten o'clock in the morning) they discover that the "prisoners in Cell 1 have barricaded themselves in" in protest over the "violation of the original [experiment] contract" they made with Zimbardo. (The three prisoners in Cell 1 are Paul-5704, Hubbie-7258, and Glenn-3401.) In an attempt to impose a form of collective punishment on the other prisoners, the guards forcibly remove the beds from Cell 2 (which contains Doug-8162, Stew-819, and Rich-1037) and strip the inhabitants of Cell 2 naked. In an attempt to prevent the guards from removing the beds from Cell 3, Rich shouts out to Cell 3 that they should violently resist the guards, calling out: "Fight them! Resist violently! The time has come for violent revolution!" (8) The prisoners in Cell 3, however, do not resist the guards' efforts to remove their beds.

Later when Rich "refuses to come out of Cell 2, three guards manhandle him, throw him to the ground, handcuff his ankles, and drag him by his feet out into the Yard." As he is dragged naked and shackled into solitary confinement, Doug demands external intervention from the researchers. Zimbardo coolly observes, "I decide not to intervene at this point but to watch the confrontation and the attempts to restore law and order." As punishment for the rebellion, lunch is only offered to the residents of Cell 3, but in an act of solidarity with the other prisoners they refuse to eat their food. With Rich and Doug in solitary confinement, Zimbardo writes that his rule that says "only one hour max in the Hole" is now being abused. Despite this break with his strictly defined experimental protocol Zimbardo makes no intervention to enforce his rule. Moreover, during their confinement in the Hole both prisoners complain about the violation of the rules and demand to see a doctor. They are ignored, for the time being anyway. (9)

At four o'clock in the afternoon the guards force their way into barricaded Cell 1.

They strip the three prisoners naked, take away their beds, and threaten to deprive them of dinner if they show any further disobedience. Already hungry from missing lunch, the prisoners melt into a sullen, quiet blob. (p.65)

Zimbardo eventually allows the prisoners to form a "Grievance Committee" (on Day 2 still) and the three elected representatives of the prisoners point out that, amongst other contract violations, "the guards are being both physically and verbally abusive..." Zimbardo, however, viewed the Grievance Committee as a means of pacifying the prisoners without giving in to their demands -- and he observes that Doug was perceptive enough to see through this ruse and did not buy "the goodwill message of the grievance guys" who served on the committee. (10)

Later, as a result of Doug's rising and very vocal anger to the breach of the experiment's rules, he is reluctantly allowed to speak to Zimbardo, whereupon Doug tells him "I can't take it anymore," and highlights the fact that his contract has been violated. Doug is then made to see the error of his ways and is cowered into returning to prison, as the other person present at this meeting is Carlo Prescott, who in a furious burst of anger lets Doug know how easy he has had it compared to a real prisoner -- pointing out that if he had been in a real prison he would most certainly have been raped by now. This has the effect of silencing Doug's complaints, as does Zimbardo's offer for him to think about becoming a snitch (which he ignores), and he reluctantly returns to prison. (11)

As one might expect, the meeting between Doug, Zimbardo, and Prescott had a significant role in undermining prisoner solidarity for the rest of the experiment, as prior to attending this meeting Doug had informed the other prisoners that he was quitting the experiment. Furthermore, upon his unexpected return to the prison, Doug then proceeded to explain to the other prisoners that it is impossible for them to break their contract and get out of prison. "This revelation from one of their respected leaders is a powerful blow to the prisoners' resolve and defiance," Zimbardo comments. "Nothing could have had a more transformative impact on the prisoners," Zimbardo later adds, "than the sudden news that in this experiment they had lost their liberty to quit on demand, lost their power to walk out at will." (12)

After lights out that night (on Day 2), Doug who is again in solitary confinement tells (researcher) Warden Jaffe that he will slit his wrists, if need be, to get out of the experiment. Jaffe does not release Doug immediately, but instead assures Doug "that as soon as he can contact one of the psychological counselors his request will be seriously considered." (13) Reluctantly Zimbardo and his researchers allow Doug to be released later that night -- after he had spent less than 36 hours in prison -- but given Zimbardo's lack of commentary on the events, it is not clear that the other prisoners knew whether Doug had been released or not.

Having been forced to release Doug, Zimbardo then decides to replace Doug with a member of his research team on Day 3, an individual whose mission is to spy on the prisoners. Critically, this new prisoner is immediately told by cellmates "that the prisoners cannot quit at any time." The following day (Day 4) the spy is released, "as he had become sympathetic to the prisoners' case and had transferred his allegiance to them in almost a heartbeat." To make up the numbers in the afternoon a new prisoner (Clay-416) was added to the prison, who recalled after the experiment: "I knew by the first evening that I had done something foolish to volunteer for this study. My first priority was to get out as soon as possible." Despite being "terrified by each new shift of guards" Clay did not ask to be released, evidently because he recognized that this was not possible, and so instead, he went on a hunger strike that lasted until the termination of the experiment (on Day 6). (14)

Here it is interesting to observe that although the prisoners thought they could not break their contracts they still thought they had a chance to leave the experiment if they could convince the "Parole Board" that they had been good prisoners. Consequently, on Day 4 Zimbardo writes: "They had begun to focus inward to selfishly consider what they had to do singly to survive and maybe score an early parole." At the subsequent Parole Board hearing, the majority of the prisoners admitted that they would forfeit their payment for participation in the experiment if they could be released, but when they were not informed by Zimbardo that they could leave the experiment they returned to prison. Zimbardo still appears to be unaware that the prisoners parole statements were obvious requests to end their participation in the experiment, and after all these years he remains perplexed as to why not one prisoner demanded to be released given that they said they preferred freedom to payment (and prison). But of course recalling the extreme psychological torture that Zimbardo had inflicted upon the prisoners, it is should not be surprising that the prisoners were not more forthright in their demands to be released. (15) Zimbardo had succeeded in his attempts to create docile prisoners.


[ed. Go to Part III.]


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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, and 2010 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work.   (back)


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1.  Here it is worth emphasizing that although Zimbardo's experiment did not have the luxury of a large number of video cameras, he was able to secretly place listening devices in the prisoners cells.  (back)

2.  David Farber and Jeff Roche (eds.), The Conservative Sixties (Peter Lang, 2003).  (back)

3.  Thomas Carnahan and Sam McFarland, "Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment: could participant self-selection have led to the cruelty?," Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33 (5), 2007, pp.603-14; Sam McFarland and Thomas Carnahan, "A situation's first powers are attracting volunteers and selecting participants: a reply to Haney and Zimbardo," Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 2009, pp.815-8.

The political orientations of the guards should have been considered especially important as a study of the Greek military police (1967-74) by one of Zimbardo's latter-day colleagues determined that an essential requirement in the "initial screening for [police] torturers" was that recruits were anti-communists, thus "ensur[ing] that the men had hostile attitudes toward potential victims from the very beginning." See Janice Gibson and Mika Haritos-Fatouro, "The education of a torturer," Psychology Today, 20, 1986.  (back)

4.  Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, p.37. When Doug was arrested by the police at the start of the experiment -- Zimbardo had arranged to use the real police to add more authenticity to the experiment -- Doug had openly referred to the police as fascists and pigs; hardly an ordinary and normal political response to say the least. (p.37)  (back)

5.  Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, p.37, p.48, p.51. Zimbardo refers to Doug as an anarchist (p.48).  (back)

6.  Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, pp.51-2, p.58, p.59.  (back)

7.  Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, p.59, p.60.  (back)

8.  Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, p.60, p.61.  (back)

9.  Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, p.62, p.63, p.65.  (back)

10.  Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, p.66, p.67. The following day (Day 3), the Grievance Committee meets again with the researchers. Their complaints included: "unsanitary conditions due to toilet restrictions; no clean water to wash hands before meals; no showers; fear of communicable disease; handcuffs and leg irons too tight, causing bruises and abrasions." (p.90) Note: prisoners were being forced to clean the toilets with their bare hands. Again, the complaints were ignored by Zimbardo.  (back)

11.  Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, p.69.  (back)

12.  Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, p.70, p.71.  (back)

13.  Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, p.77.  (back)

14.  Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, p.89, p.109, p.114. In fact as soon as Clay-416 arrived in prison he "wanted to quit the experiment immediately. However, he was told by his cellmates that he could not quit. His cellmates passed along the false statement that Prisoner 8612 had asserted, that is was not possible to leave..." (p.160)  (back)

15.  Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, p.110, p.141. As it turns out, the experiment was only ended on Day 6 because Zimbardo's girlfriend (and future wife), Christina Maslach, who had just started her new job as an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford, saw what was going on in the experiment and demanded that it be stopped. (pp.169-71)  (back)


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Published July 18, 2011