The Stanford Prison Experiment is an effective, but not satisfying docudrama about the famous 1971 “experiment” in which psychology professor Philip Zimbardo transformed a building at Stanford University into a mock prison and had test subjects role play as prisoners and guards.
I put the word “experiment” in scare quotes because, as a colleague of Zimbardo points out in the film, the exercise is more of a simulation than a scientific experiment. There is no control group or variable. Rules governing the study, such as no hitting allowed, are quickly abandoned. Zimbardo himself participates rather than observes, pushing the subjects assigned to the guard roles to take control. When one participant asks to see a doctor he is returned to the experiment and told that prisoners do not get paroled for having stomach aches.
Zimbardo’s experiment is often discussed in psychology classes and textbooks. Even if it is not good science, it is a powerful case study that provided a lifetime of anecdotal pseudo-evidence for anyone who wasn’t convinced by Stanley Milgrim’s demonstrations that we all conform to circumstances and obey authority more than we think we do.
And if the film is accurate, I have a hard time understanding why Zimbardo was not himself jailed. Certainly if a student participating in my class assaulted another student and I condoned it, I have a hard time believing I wouldn’t be at least fired. When his female junior colleague confronts “Phil” with her assessment that the experiment is immoral, it is supposed to be some sort of jarring epiphany. Perhaps it was . . . in 1971.
But after Abu Ghraib, after Taxi to the Dark Side, can any of us really say ...1