The Devil in all of us?  The Stanford Prison Experiment


The deluge of videos showing cops gone wild continues unabated.  Many factors contribute to this horrific situation.  Racism is an undeniable part, but so are the militarization of our police forces, abusive court fines, and even outright systemic corruption.  Most of these problems could be addressed through law (with enough political will), and maybe even the toxic effects of racism could at least be blunted.   But what if none of those issues are the root of the problem?  What if the problem goes to a level of humanity we can’t even touch?  The Stanford Prison Experiment gives some evidence this may be the case.  If its findings are valid, then cops, politicians, and even victims may not be completely responsible for their situations, and there may be a large component of this dehumanization that we are condemned to live with…RestOfNewsletter

The Stanford Prison Experiment was flawed in many ways, but it would be unwise to ignore it completely.  There are certainly evil, racist, and sadistic people in the world, but the experiment shows that evil doesn’t require these qualities to flourish.  Good people can be prodded toward evil by their circumstances, and apathy can be enough to let the slide continue.  On the bright side, it also shows the value of leadership and oversight… a word from a person in control of a situation can change everything.  From Abu Ghraib to Ferguson, the Stanford Prison Experiment shows that it’s not enough to blame Lynndie England or Darren Wilson.  They’re certainly responsible, but if we stop with them then the problem won’t be solved.  It’s not enough to weed out ‘evil’ people because the evil is us all.  Solutions require the leadership and conscious involvement of all of us, or the situation that brings about this evil will never change.

The Setup

The Stanford Prison Experiment is one of the most famous experiments ever in psychology, but it’s not very well known outside psychological circles.  It was groundbreaking and controversial when it was conducted and the results remain disturbing yet ambiguous today.

In 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo simulated a prison environment using average students (filtered to exclude criminal background, psychological impairments, or medical problems) randomly assigned to roles of ‘prisoner’ or ‘guard’.  Prisoners were arrested at their homes by real police, searched, booked, deloused, and given a uniform of a gown, sandals, stocking cap, and leg chains.  Guards were given khaki uniforms, badges, sunglasses, and batons.  Prisoners were taken to the ‘Stanford County Prison’, a mockup created in the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department including cells, prison yard, guard shack, and a solitary confinement room.  Prisoners had to stay in their cells throughout the two-week study, while guards worked for eight-hour shifts and went home.  The few ground rules included a ban on physical violence, although guards were permitted to use non-violent punishments like isolation or push-ups.

The Events

So what happened?  Prisoners and guards quickly coalesced into hostile groups with guards using every method at their disposal to control prisoners.  This rapidly slid from control to abuse.  Guards humiliated and punished the prisoners to the point of mental and emotional distress, resulting in a revolt on day two.  As the experiment progressed, forced exercise, physical punishment, removal of mattresses and toilet facilities, and sexual humiliation entered the scenario.  The ban on physical violence was breached more than once.  Zimbardo, the ‘warden’ of the prison, watched all this without interference until he ended the experiment after just six days of the two weeks planned.


While the Stanford Experiment may seem informative, has been widely criticized for many serious flaws.  It happened before medical ethics required fully informed consent and protection of the subjects from physical or psychological harm, and arguably lacked both.  Ironically, it was also one of the experiments that helped establish these standards for later research.

Other criticisms strike at the methodology of the experiment.  The results were certainly affected by the participants’ knowledge that were in an observed simulation.  Since they were assigned roles in a prison (as opposed to the military or a bakery), the subjects performed to expected prison roles… or more precisely, their stereotypes of those roles.  For instance, Zimbardo mentions his inclusion of sunglasses as part of the guards’ uniforms was inspired by “Cool Hand Luke”, which does not depict an enlightened prison system.  Zimbardo’s own preconceptions about prison undoubtedly colored the scenario as well, as did his manipulations during the experiment.

There have even been critiques of the “normal” students used in the experiment.  They were indeed drawn from the general student population, but were also a self-selected group who responded to an ad for a “study of prison life”.  Since this isn’t a truly unblemished pool of participants, the experimental results may not be generalizable to the rest of the population.


People-science is usually not as unequivocal as object-science, and psychological experiments rarely have the objectivity of their physics or chemistry analogues.  It’s harder to place controls or to isolate critical variables when dealing with real people, and harder to draw iron-clad conclusions from any one study.  As imperfect as the Prison Experiment was, there may still be lessons from it.

The people in the experiment may not represent the general population, but they weren’t selected for evil either.   The Stanford experiment showed the overwhelming influence of context on an individual’s action.  A person may not be ‘evil’, but the situations they are in can mold or test their basic tendencies.   Also, people may change behavior to fit what they believe their ‘role’ requires them.  Dave Eshelman, one of the prison guards, recalled that he “consciously created” his guard persona. “I was kind of running my own experiment in there, by saying, ‘How far can I push these things and how much abuse will these people take before they say, ‘Knock it off?’ ”

The role of leadership also came under scrutiny in the experiment.  As Eshelman indicated, the guards in the experiment were under the control and observation of the researchers (particularly Zimbardo).  From the New Yorker article below, “Occasionally, disputes between prisoner and guards got out of hand, violating an explicit injunction against physical force that both prisoners and guards had read prior to enrolling in the study. When the “superintendent” and “warden” overlooked these incidents, the message to the guards was clear: all is well; keep going as you are. The participants knew that an audience was watching, and so a lack of feedback could be read as tacit approval.”  This influence of the ‘warden’ (or lack thereof) was pivotal in the development of the abuse and violence that ended the experiment.

The Stanford Prison Experiment in depth…

The Stanford Prison Experiment (part I) and The Stanford Prison Experiment (part II)- (video)

Documentary from the BBC built on extensive video from the original experiment and interviews with Zimbardo and other experiment participants.

Zimbardo – Stanford Prison Experiment– Saul McLeod on Simply Psychology, 2008

Detailed sketch of the Prison Experiment

The Real Lesson of the Stanford Prison Experiment– Maria Konnikova in The New Yorker, Jun 2015

In-depth examination of the experiment and its implications

The Lucifer Effect- Understanding How Good People Turn Evil– (book) by Philip Zimbardo, Random House, 2007

Zimbardo analyzes the Prison Experiment and other experiments designed to expose the effects of situation and role in why good people do evil.

The Lie of the Stanford Prison Experiment– Carlo Prescott in The Stanford Daily, Apr 2005

Critique of the experiment from Carlo Prescott, a man who served 17 years in San Quentin and was a chief consultant to Zimbardo on the original experiment.

The Rarely Told True Story of Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment– Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., in Psychology Today, Jul 2013; and Why Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment Isn’t in My Textbook– Peter Gray in Psychology Today, Oct 2013

A glimpse of academic argumentation as two psychologists discuss the value of the Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment: Still powerful after all these years– Stanford News Service, Jan 1997

Article from Stanford University delving into the ethics of the Experiment and describing in detail the role of Christina Maslach, one of the psychologists who urged Zimbardo to close down the project.

The Stanford Prison Experiment:  A simulation study on the psychology of imprisonment- (webpage for movie)

In July 2015 IFC will release a movie based on the Stanford Prison Experiment.  It’s a drama, not a documentary, but the trailer sums up the whole thing and sends shivers down your spine as well.

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