Swans Commentary » swans.com August 1, 2011  



Challenging The Stanford Prison Experiment
Military Connections (Part III of III)


by Michael Barker





[ed. Read Part I and Part II.]


(Swans - August 1, 2011)   Although it is not something that Zimbardo or any of his scholarly critics have purposely discussed over the years, Zimbardo acknowledges that his research was "supported by a government grant from the Office of Naval Research to study antisocial behavior..." Moreover, in the course of the experiment, one of the radical prisoners obviously thought this was a significant issue, as on Day 3, Paul-5704 wrote to his girlfriend to let her know that he had planned to write about his experience for a number of radical underground newspapers (The Tribe and The Berkeley Barb) as he had discovered that the project was being funded by the military. Zimbardo is quick to dismiss Paul's legitimate concerns, writing that Paul had "hatched a conspiracy theory arguing that we are trying to find out how best to imprison student protestors who are opposing the Vietnam War!" (1) After smearing Paul as a mindless conspiracy theorist, Zimbardo then affirms that far from being a stooge of the military he was in fact a "kindred political spirit" to Paul and his radical ilk. Zimbardo continues:

Little did he know that I myself was a radical, activist professor, against the Vietnam War since 1966, when I had organized one of the nation's first all-night university "teach-ins" at New York University, organized a large-scale walk-out at NYU's graduation ceremony to protest the university's awarding an honorary degree to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and in the last year, at Stanford, I had organized thousands of students into constructive challenges to the continuing war. I was a kindred political spirit but not a mindlessly kindred revolutionary. (p.91)

But despite his self-identification as a "radical, activist professor," earlier in his book Zimbardo unwittingly brought this self-description into doubt when he described the pioneering work he had already conducted in promoting community policing prior to his initiating the Stanford Prison Experiment. (2) Given his delusional self-description as a radical, Zimbardo (the Liberal) writes how...

... it is upsetting to think that my research grant status is being accused of being a tool of the administration's war machine, especially since I have worked to encourage effective dissent by student activists. That grant was originally given to fund empirical and conceptual research on the effects of anonymity, of conditions of deindviduation, and on interpersonal aggression. When the idea for the prison experiment occurred, I got the granting agency to extend the funding to pay for this research as well, without any other additional funding. (p.92)

A little background information that Zimbardo does not relate to his readers is that one of the major antiwar projects that was launched in October 1969 at his campus was the Stanford Workshops on Political and Social Issues (SWOPSI); "an experiment in alternative education intended to encourage research and teaching on current affairs" that, amongst other things, sought to examine "what the military-industrial complex was doing to their own university." (3) Thus in one among many related projects, SWOPSI, with the aid of faculty sponsorship, scrutinized the contracts that the Department of Defense (DOD) had with Stanford University academics. And of most interest to the Stanford Prison Experiment:

What struck the students most were the apparent discrepancies between what faculty investigators said they were doing and what DOD contract monitors said the faculty investigators were doing. Where the professors emphasized a broad range of fundamental questions in science, their sponsors stressed a narrower band of military applications. "Basic research, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder," the Army's chief scientist explained to the students. (p.248)

Volume 1 of the SWOPSI study provided an elegant example of the divergence of interests between researchers and their funders by setting the research statements on file at Stanford alongside the Pentagon's version of the same information. In the case of Zimbardo's research, his title for the grant under which his prison research was subsumed was, "Individual and Group Variables Influencing Emotional Arousal, Violence, and Behavior." The DOD's title for Zimbardo's project on the other hand was "Personnel Technology Factors Influencing Disruptive Behavior Among Military Trainees." (4) The difference between the two titles is striking to say the least; so it is worth reprinting what the military thought the primary purpose of Zimbardo's research was.

U.S. military forces have recently experienced an apparent upsurge of problems involving negative reactions to authority, insufficient loyalty to the organization, failure to maintain (and even sabotage of) valuable government property, and racial conflict. This research aims at the production of a set of behavioral principles which could reduce the incidence of such undesireable [sic] behavior in the Navy and Marine Corps. (p.287)

Considering that the U.S. military thought that Zimbardo's work would be helping improve the efficiency of the war machine, it is very worrying that Zimbardo has always ignored or played down this fact (which was publicly exposed in 1971). Instead of dealing with this substantive subject he simply expresses surprise that the military could find any such use for his research, writing that one of the "unexpected uses" of the Stanford Prison Experiment had been its adoption by the Navy's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) program. More strange is the fact that Zimbardo draws his readers' attention to a critique of his experiment, which in his words makes the "claim rather powerfully" that the Stanford Prison Experiment's "main message of situational power was co-opted by the Pentagon and utilized in its torture training programs..." (5) He continues by quoting the aforementioned study -- whose claims Zimbardo decides not to refute -- which argues that the Stanford Prison Experiment...

... appears to be the experiment that informs torture in Iraq ... A situation is created -- made worse by understaffing, danger, and no outside independent controls -- and with a little encouragement (never specific instructions to torture) guards do torture. This situation and this torture are now widely recognized in U.S. prisons in Iraq.... The U.S. administration's advantage in the Stanford experiment "situation" is that it provides deniability -- there are no orders to torture, but the situation can be predicted to cause it. (6)

So it seems that in addition to misrepresenting fundamental issues of human nature, Zimbardo's experiment has also been used to help shield the U.S. administration from accusations that they deliberately promote torture, when in fact the results of the experiment should have been used to prove the complete opposite and illustrate their guilt. This is because the Stanford Prison Experiment actually demonstrated the need for strong institutional input and leadership to create the right environment for torture to blossom -- and consequently, the U.S. military has been more than willing to provide such top-down guidance, in the form of manuals and training to torturers all over the world. (7) Indeed, Stephen Reicher and Alex Haslam also point out how the U.S. military establishment "us[ed] Zimbardo's findings as evidence" to demonstrate that the torturers in Iraq were victims of unfortunate and unforeseen circumstances. (8) Reicher and Haslam suggest, however, that an alternative way to understand the advent of such torture...

... is to look at the culture of our institutions and the role of leaders in framing that culture. Bad leadership can permit torture in two ways. Sometimes leaders can actively promote oppressive values. This is akin to what happened in Zimbardo's study and may be the case in certain military intelligence units. But sometimes leaders can simply fail to promote anything and hence create a vacuum of power. ...

Our own findings indicated that where such a vacuum exists, people are more likely to accept any clear line of action which is vigorously proposed. Often, then, tyranny follows from powerlessness rather than power. In either case, the failure of leaders to champion clear humane and democratic values is part of the problem.

Furthermore, as Reicher and Haslam correctly acknowledge, to understand how tyranny can occur so routinely in prisons, it is vital to look beyond military leadership, and attempt to situate tyranny within dominant cultural values that normalize violence against "others." Thus they conclude: "The torturers in Iraq may or may not have been following direct orders from their leaders, but they were almost certainly allowed to feel that they were behaving as good followers."

Resisting Brutality

As this article has demonstrated, over the past forty-plus years, the Stanford Prison Experiment has had a strong, and arguably detrimental impact upon both scholarly and popular conceptions of social psychology. Contrary to Zimbardo's misleading conclusions, ordinary people do not mindlessly and helplessly succumb to brutality; instead the evidence (even from his own experiment) seems to suggest that individuals tend to engage in brutality only when they truly believe that such actions are warranted -- acting upon ideas that are condoned by equally brutal group ideologies. The guards in Zimbardo's experiment were thus coerced by Zimbardo and his researchers to brutalize the prisoners; while the prisoners did not simply submit to the guards' brutality, but instead, actively resisted their oppression, both collectively and individually. This resistance was considered intolerable to Zimbardo, and as this article has shown, he utilized his system power to intervene to increase guard brutality and undermine the prisoners' collective will to resist their abusers.

Although the U.S. military has certainly benefited from Zimbardo's research, the Stanford Prison Experiment has also contributed to reinforcing a brutal and unjust status quo in a more indirect sense. This is because, as Stephen Reicher observes, it "has contributed to a contemporary cultural zeitgeist, whereby groups and power are seen as bad for you ... amongst those who have liberal, caring, positive social values." (9) Groups and power are not however a recipe for tyranny and oppression: as it is through collective action and the formation of powerful, democratic, people-powered groups that tyranny and oppression are most effectively resisted. (10) But as research by Stephen Reicher and Alex Haslam has shown, it is only when the democratic operating dynamics of normal groups are undermined that tyranny has cause to rear its ugly head. This of course makes it all the more important that people join groups and learn the most effective ways of working democratically to counter oppression in all its forms, with democracy's antithesis, capitalism, being just the most obvious source of tyranny in the world today.


To e-mail this article


· · · · · ·


If you find Michael Barker's work valuable, please consider helping us

· · · · · ·



Feel free to insert a link to this work on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting the first paragraph or providing a summary. However, DO NOT steal, scavenge, or repost this work on the Web or any electronic media. Inlining, mirroring, and framing are expressly prohibited. Pulp re-publishing is welcome -- please contact the publisher. This material is copyrighted, © Michael Barker 2011. All rights reserved.


Have your say

Do you wish to share your opinion? We invite your comments. E-mail the Editor. Please include your full name, address and phone number (the city, state/country where you reside is paramount information). When/if we publish your opinion we will only include your name, city, state, and country.


About the Author

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)


· · · · · ·



1.  Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, p.30, p.91. Zimbardo himself is not, however, immune from the promotion of what others in the mainstream may consider to be conspiracy theories, as he points out that the Guyana Jonestown Massacre (of 1978) was "perhaps even sponsored by the CIA." (p.479) In his endnote for this observation he writes: "A detailed account of Jonestown as a CIA supported experiment is given in the thesis of Michael Meires, Was Jonestown a CIA Medical Experiment? A Review of the Evidence (Lewiston, NY: E. Mellen Press, 1968). [sic 1988] (Studies in American Religion Series, vol.35)." (p.532)

For a useful online review of the CIA's involvement in the Jonestown experiment, see Jim Hougan, "The secret life of Jim Jones: a parapolitical fugue," Lobster, June 1999.  (back)

2.  For an insightful polemic against community policing, see Kristian William, Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America (South End Press, 2007). In describing the political backdrop to the Stanford Prison Experiment, Zimbardo states that "Hard feelings arose between the Stanford college community, on the one side, and the Palo Alto police and hard-line, 'hawk' townies, on the other." This statement demonstrates how Zimbardo was oblivious to the growth of the New Right that predated much of the popular progressive student activism of the late 1960s; see David Farber and Jeff Roche (eds.), The Conservative Sixties (Peter Lang, 2003). Furthermore, given the fact that Zimbardo describes the growth of such hostility as a "strange conflict," it is evident that he simply could not fathom the very real role that the police play in defending the state from opposition groups questioning the status quo, i.e., student activists. So befitting his liberal politics, in a quest to solve this "strange" problem, Zimbardo approached the police to get them to "collaborate in a program of city police-Stanford student 'depolarization'"; thus helping the police boost their respectability in a pioneering model of community policing. Although Zimbardo's PR exercise for the police did not resolve any of the real contradictions between their social function and the legitimacy of challenges to the status quo, Zimbardo concludes that this project was a success: "It was another sign I had reasonable people could work out reasonable solutions to what seemed like insoluble social problems." Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, pp.26-7.  (back)

3.  Stuart Leslie, The Cold War and American Science: The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex at MIT and Stanford (Columbia University Press, 1993), p.247.  (back)

4.  Stanton Glantz, Carol Farlow, Richard Simpson, Norm Albers, Dennis Pocekay, William Holley, Michael Becker, Stephen Ashley, and Michael Headrick, Department of Defense Sponsored Research at Stanford -- Volume 1, Two Perceptions: The Investigator's and the Sponsor's (SWOPSI, 1971), p.285. The grant number for Zimbardo's experiment was N00014-67-A-0112-0041, although in his book Zimbardo refers to the grant as number N001447-A-0112-0041 (Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, p.497).  (back)

5.  Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, p.252, p.254.  (back)

6.  Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, p.254. The study that Zimbardo is quoting is Gerald May and Alessandra Zielinski, "Psychology and U.S. psychologists in torture and war in the Middle East," (pdf) Torture, 16, 2006.  (back)

7.  Zimbardo points out that in his study of torturers in Brazil (1964-1985), their "heinous" abuse of prisoners was "sanctioned by their government, and secretly supported by the CIA" as part of the US-led war on communism. Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, p.290. Zimbardo is well aware of the historical involvement of the U.S. government in the export of torture, and on numerous occasions he cites Alfred McCoy's book on this subject, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror (Metropolitan Books, 2006).  (back)

8.  Stephen Reicher and Alex Haslam, "Why not everyone is a torturer," BBC News, May 10, 2004.

Understanding "System Power" is key to comprehending why humans sometimes brutalize one another; whereby System Power "consists of the agents and agencies whose ideology, values, and power create situations and dictate the roles and expectations for approved behaviors of actors within its spheres of influence." (Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, p.446) Zimbardo writes:

"For many years, discussion of the SPE did not even include a Systems-level analysis because the original dialogue was framed as the contest between the dispositional and situational ways of understanding human behavior. I ignored the bigger problem of considering that framing provided by the System. It was really only after I became engaged in understanding the dynamics of the widespread abuses in the many military prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Cuba that the Systems level of analysis became glaringly obvious." (p.227)

Therefore, it is noteworthy that in the latter part of his book Zimbardo attempts to bring an analysis of System Power into the equation. Nevertheless, despite his admirable efforts (in Chapter 14 and 15) to put the leaders of the system on trial for the abuse of prisoners in Iraq, ultimately his theory "that situations matter most must assume that [Donald] Rumsfeld was caught up in a web of forces outside himself, just like the rest of us." Joachim Krueger, "Review: Lucifer's Last Laugh," p.339.  (back)

9.  Stephen Reicher cited in Ian Johnstone, "BBC in US battle over state of human nature," The Scotsman, October 22, 2005.  (back)

10.  Zimbardo does write that challenging unjust systems is "best performed by soliciting others to join one's cause." However, he fails to highlight the central role that large groups and social movement play in effectively challenging system power, and instead says that working alone or in pairs is not always particularly effective, "but with three on your side, you become a force of ideas to be reckoned with." (p.456) Instead of encouraging people to work in large democratically organized groups, Zimbardo goes on to extol the virtues of the individualistic positive psychology movement. He writes: "Spearheaded by Martin Seligman and his colleagues, this movement has created a paradigm shift toward accentuating the positive in human nature and minimizing psychology's long-held focus on the negative." (p.460) Zimbardo, of course, is one of the main culprits for ensuring this undue focus on the negative, i.e., a fixation on group conformity, rather than resistance, to oppression. So thankfully, Barbara Ehrenreich in her timely book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World (Granta Books, 2009) provides a welcome corrective to Zimbardo's celebratory attitude to Seligman's movement.

It would appear that Seligman's focus on positive thinking has been just as useful in maintaining an unjust status quo as Zimbardo's own research has proved to be. Ehrenreich's devastating critique of the positive psychology movement also draws particular attention to Seligman's own conservative political orientation, noting that:

"He is famously impatient with 'victims' and 'victimo1ogy,' saying, for example, in a 2000 interview: 'In general when things go wrong we now have a culture which supports the belief that this was done to you by some larger force, as opposed to, you brought it on yourself by your character or your decision.' It also turns out that he has spoken about his "learned helplessness" experiments with dogs at one of the military's SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) schools, which were originally designed to help U.S. troops survive capture but changed their mission, post-9/11, to devising new forms of torture for suspected terrorists. (Seligman denies he was contributing to torture, writing in a 2008 e-mail that 'I strongly disapprove of torture and have never and would never provide assistance in its process.')" (p.169)  (back)


· · · · · ·


Internal Resources

Patterns which Connect

America the 'beautiful'

Activism under the Radar Screen

· · · · · ·


This edition's other articles

Check the front page, where all current articles are listed.



Check our past editions, where the past remains very present.

· · · · · ·


[About]-[Past Issues]-[Archives]-[Resources]-[Copyright]



Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art17/barker84.html
Published August 1, 2011