Why The Stanford Prison Experiment Still Matters

At the conclusion of Dr. Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment — subject of the recent film of by director Kyle Patrick Alvarez — “guards” and “prisoners” were offered a chance to face each other as equals. One prisoner confronted a particular tormentor, a guard nicknamed “John Wayne” because he adopted mannerisms that mirrored the late Western actor. John Wayne asked the prisoner what he would have done, had he been randomly selected as a guard.

“I don’t believe I would have applied as much imagination to what I was doing,” the prisoner replied. “I think I would have been a guard; I don’t think it would have been such a masterpiece.” The whole interaction was recorded and presented in Zimbardo's 1992 documentary on the experiment, entitled Quiet Rage.

For reasons like the chilling conversation above, the Stanford Prison Experiment has captured the popular imagination since its ill-fated run in the 1970s. Planned as a two-week observational study, the experiment was terminated after just six days. Zimbardo found that the guards became increasingly abusive and the prisoners increasingly withdrawn. When a peer at Stanford, his now-wife Dr. Christina Maslach, questioned the morality of the experiment, Zimbardo determined that the prison should be shuttered ahead of schedule. Like some of his young subjects, Zimbardo saw that he too had begun to play a role. As he recently told Bustle, he started to see himself as a prison warden first, and an impartial researcher second.

Even before The Stanford Prison Experiment —the new fictionalized account of the study starring Ezra Miller and Billy Crudup — brought Zimbardo back into the limelight, a pair of British psychologists re-envisioned the experiment for a BBC documentary titled The BBC Prison Study. It wasn’t simply a recreation of Zimbardo's study; as one of the researchers, Stephen Reicher, tells Bustle, there were ethical and methodical concerns about replicating what Zimbardo had already done. They hoped instead to explore power dynamics and "permeability" — an individual's sense of their ability to advance and to challenge perceived inequality.

Still, the second study was profoundly influenced by Zimbardo’s original work. As Reicher explains, he revealed possible explanations for how, given the right context, the unlikeliest of candidates can fall into certain negative behaviors. But not all individuals in the study succumbed — there was still resistance on the part of the prisoners, and some among the guards took a more conciliatory approach to their jobs.

"It's part of a powerful view that groups do terrible things," Reicher says. "Many of the messages people take from the film are at odds with the explanation which Zimbardo gives of his own study."

The published results, it turns out, are far less significant than the impressions the experiment has left on contemporary culture. It entered the popular lexicon, and stayed there, because it was a disturbing but accessible narrative that appealed to our basic questions and assumptions about human nature.

Yet the title "Stanford Prison Experiment" is itself something of a misnomer. It wasn't quite a linear experiment with a hypothesis, independent variable, and conclusion.

"It's a field study — it's a very rich field study," Reicher says.

This is shown with Zimbardo himself intervening in the experiment, taking a personal leadership role as the prison's warden. This is readily evident in Alvarez's film, in which Crudup's Zimbardo goes so far as to egg on his guards in their sadistic punishments. The interplay of observation and individual traits — what colloquially would be called "personality," though Reicher is quick to refute the idea that the experiment was a "personality study" — also impacted the trajectory of the experiment. In essence, perhaps the reason that the Stanford Prison Experiment has so captured the popular imagination is because the study and its subsequent permutations are so easily transmissible. They're recorded, promoted, widely released, and entered into the cultural conversation.

"The phenomena are so compelling, so realistic, and we can actually see them in that sort of grainy black-and-white, which seems to be a token of realism to us," Reicher says, referring to original footage of both Milgram's obedience studies and Zimbardo's prison experiment.

Throughout the original Stanford Prison Experiment and its subsequent BBC spinoff, both prisoners and guards were aware that they were being observed. As Billy Crudup's Zimbardo says in the film, "Just as you are watching the prisoners, my graduate staff and I will be watching you." In The BBC Prison Study, the participants were even aware that this was destined for television.

"In many ways, Zimbardo and Milgram are as important as filmmakers as they are as science," Reicher said.

This means that the study lends itself all the more to a film reproduction. As director Alvarez tells Bustle, "These actions and these series of events are compelling and challenging, and that makes them inherently cinematic." Much of Tim Talbott's screenplay was a direct transcription of conversations Zimbardo reported in his original study. In a recent panel promoting the film, actor Ezra Miller, who plays Prisoner 8612, noted the risks of “falling into that MC Escher painting, and probably getting stuck there." He and his costars were vigilant about delving so deep in their performances that they actually reached the mental state of their characters. For Miller, this would be the paralyzing anxiety that ultimately allowed Prisoner 8612 to leave the study after just two days.

This recalls the tyrannical behavior of John Wayne, played in The Stanford Prison Experiment with brutal nuance by Michael Angarano, who, Reicher says, "was creating a work of art" in his performance. To deny the agency involved in his performance — his total creation of a new identity — would be to excuse a whole host of human error that can ultimately contribute to tyranny on a massive scale. It's far more dangerous to say that people are pre-programmed to behave a certain way in a given context than it is to give them reign over their own actions.

"If you read both Mussolini and Hitler, both of them saw themselves as artists who were crafting the people as raw material being crushed in the interest of their art," says Reicher. "There's this fascist aesthetic of the right to use others."

But if we reject groupthink as a valid excuse, what does that mean for how groups do impact behavior? Reicher and his research partner, Alex Haslam, wanted to examine what provoked that resistance in their reconstruction of the Stanford Prison Experiment — why, in essence, behavior isn't exclusively contextual. And what they uncovered was that, rather than groupthink precipitating tyrannical behavior, it's the failure of groups that leads to tyranny. The moment when the group fails to cohere is the moment that it allows an individual to seize control of the circumstances. So as Alvarez astutely noted, the art and artifice of the experiment permits its representation across a variety of visual media, from documentary to fictionalized adaptation, without losing the "takeaway." It's not a film about an experiment — it's about the way we construct identity and perform self, and how easily that self can slip into tyranny.

Images: IFC Films (4)