New Delhi: The Stanford prison experiment is one of the most popular psychological studies of all time. It’s often quoted in textbooks and research papers, as well as in popular culture. Despite being almost 50 years old, the experiment still captures the public imagination. And now we know that imagination – and not rigorous scientific study – went into creating it, too.
In 1971, Philip Zimbardo, a young psychology professor at Stanford University, built a fake jail in a basement on campus. Nine ‘prisoners’ and nine ‘guards’ were chosen after a call for applications in the newspaper. All the participants were male and college-aged, and were paid for their time. ‘Senior staff’ at the prison included Zimbardo and some of his students.
Within six days, the experiment was shut down, apparently because guards were taking on cruel, inhuman attitudes and prisoners were traumatised and breaking down. The results were used – and still are – to argue that people have inherent sadism within them, which comes to the fore when they have power over others or when put in certain situations.
But what if the entire experiment was a sham?
There are now multiple sources to prove that it was.
A report by Ben Blum published on Medium has used interviews to show that the famous experiment was doctored to provide certain results. One of the most famous moments from the study was when one of the prisoners, Douglas Korpi, kicked at the door while screaming, “I mean, Jesus Christ, I’m burning up inside! Don’t you know? I want to get out! This is all fucked up inside! I can’t stand another night! I just can’t take it anymore!”
Korpi has now told Blum that he was faking it. He was definitely afraid – but not of the guards. He thought he would have time in ‘prison’ to study for the GRE, but the guards weren’t giving him his books. So he was faking a breakdown so that they would let him out. It was all quite fun, he said, until he wasn’t allowed to leave. “I was entirely shocked,” he told Blum. “I mean, it was one thing to pick me up in a cop car and put me in a smock. But they’re really escalating the game by saying that I can’t leave. They’re stepping to a new level. I was just like, ‘Oh my God.’ That was my feeling.”
Other prisoners also said that they asked to be let out but weren’t. Zimbardo, however, denied that people were kept inside against their will. He said the consent forms included a safe phrase – “I quit the experiment” – if you really wanted to leave. But the consent forms are available online, Blum writes, and do not include anything of that kind.
This is important because, according to Blum,
“Zimbardo’s standard narrative of the Stanford prison experiment offers the prisoners’ emotional responses as proof of how powerfully affected they were by the guards’ mistreatment. The shock of real imprisonment provides a simpler and far less groundbreaking explanation. It may also have had legal implications, should prisoners have thought to pursue them. Korpi told me that the greatest regret of his life was failing to sue Zimbardo.”
According to Korpi, he admitted that his breakdown was false, but Zimbardo insisted that they keep portraying it as real for years to come. Zimbardo was big on media coverage of his experiment, sending regular press releases to a local channel while it was on and arranging media appearances for Korpi and others after. “If he wanted to say I had a mental breakdown, it seemed a minor note,” Korpi told Blum. “I didn’t really object. I thought it was an exaggeration that served Phil’s purposes.” Even after Korpi said he no longer wanted to appear on shows, Zimbardo “hounded” him to continue.
That’s not all. The so-called extreme behaviour adopted by the guards also has another explanation. This behaviour did not come out of the blue, Blum reported, but was taught to the guards in the orientation session.
“We cannot physically abuse or torture them,” Zimbardo told them, in recordings first released a decade and a half after the experiment. “We can create boredom. We can create a sense of frustration. We can create fear in them, to some degree… We have total power in the situation. They have none.”
There’s another thing about the Stanford prison experiment that isn’t talked about much, and that’s the role David Jaffe, an undergrad student who was the ‘warden’, played. Jaffe and his friends reportedly conducted a similar simulation experiment on their on a few months before Zimbardo’s, and that’s what inspired the professor.
“Dr. Zimbardo suggested that the most difficult problem would be to get the guards to behave like guards,” Jaffe wrote in a post-experiment evaluation. “I was asked to suggest tactics based on my previous experience as master sadist. … I was given the responsibility of trying to elicit ‘tough-guard’ behavior.”
The guards’ behaviour, then, was not as spontaneous as Zimbardo wanted people to believe.
One of the most cruel guards during the experiment was Dave Eshelman, who speaks in a southern American accent in the audio recordings released by Zimbardo. Eshelman told Blum that both his accent and his attitude were very much an act and not a result of the situation he was in; he was trying to help the researchers succeed. “I took it as a kind of an improv exercise,” Eshelman said. “I believed that I was doing what the researchers wanted me to do, and I thought I’d do it better than anybody else by creating this despicable guard persona. I’d never been to the South, but I used a southern accent, which I got from Cool Hand Luke.”
This isn’t the first time the validity of the Stanford prison experiment has been questioned, though the amount of detail and the many levels on which Zimbardo’s claims have rebutted are new. Even just after the study was published, psychologists raised questions on the researchers’ analysis of the results. Well-known psychologist Eric Fromm wrote,
“The authors believe it proves that the situation alone can within a few days transform normal people into abject, submissive individuals or into ruthless sadists. It seems to me that the experiment proves, if anything, rather the contrary.”
An attempt to replicate the experiment also failed to provide the same results. According to one of the authors of that study, Steve Reicher, Zimbardo tried to stop their paper from being published. The British Journal of Social Psychology decided to publish the study anyway, accompanied by a note from Zimbardo that said, “I believe this alleged ‘social psychology field study’ is fraudulent and does not merit acceptance by the social psychological community in Britain, the United States or anywhere except in media psychology.”
But in spite of the doubts raised in the past, the experiment continues to be taught to psychology students in the guise of a valid scientific exercise. According to Vox, this is because there is a lag between popular consciousness around certain results and what teachers and textbooks say. And a part of that can only be fixed when old studies are followed up on – or even replicated – to make sure that their results still stand, or look into why they don’t. Science reporter Brian Resnick writes,
“If it’s true that textbooks and teachers are still neglecting to cover replication issues, then I’d argue they are actually underselling the science. To teach the “replication crisis” is to teach students that science strives to be self-correcting. It would instill in them the value that science ought to be reproducible.”
Blum has a different analysis for why people still quote and teach the Stanford prison experiment – it makes us feel better about our actions.
“As troubling as it might seem to accept Zimbardo’s fallen vision of human nature, it is also profoundly liberating. It means we’re off the hook. Our actions are determined by circumstance. Our fallibility is situational. Just as the Gospel promised to absolve us of our sins if we would only believe, the SPE offered a form of redemption tailor-made for a scientific era, and we embraced it.”