Scientists sometimes feel like they must push ethical boundaries in order to discover an objective, empirical truth. Psychologists–behavioral and mental scientists–are among those who might perform questionable tests to better understand the human condition. In 1971, such a psychologist named Philip Zimbardo created a study called, The Stanford Prison Experiment. With a grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research, Zimbardo was able to pay 24 students to simulate a realistic (and hostile) prison environment. Instead of lasting the initial two-weeks, the abusive atmosphere of the “Stanford County Prison” became so out of hand, the experiment had to be terminated in six days.
What was the purpose?
According to Zimbardo in a documentary,
“I was interested in what happens when you put good people in an evil place. Does the situation outside of you, the institution, come to control your behavior, or does the things inside of you- your attitude, your values, your morality- allow you to rise above a negative environment?”
There have been several documentaries based on Zimbardo’s book and research, and although I’ve seen two of them, it was the 2015 full-length feature film that captivated me most. It brought to life the story I read in ‘Intro to Psych’ class that made me interested in the field. The abuse of power and evil of domination displayed in the experiment can not only be applied to prison, but also situations in war and abusive relationships.
So, what made the feature film version stand out more than the actual footage?
The feature film is much more personal and intimate. Instead of hidden camera footage with a narrator or Dr. Zimbardo voiceover, we are thrown right into the action, so close that we can see welling tears and trembling hands. You get the idea of emotional and physical torture the boys go through in the documentary, but you experience the torture in the feature, which is filled with such persistent bullying that two hours feels like the six long days the students participated. It is grueling to watch because you share in the prisoners’ humiliation but done so well that it is hard to look away.
I think what makes this film so successful is the superb acting.
The first character who caught my attention was Daniel aka Prisoner 8612 (Ezra Miller). After being mock arrested, his carefree disposition turned solemn as a blindfold was placed over his eyes. He continued to take the experiment lightly, as if it were a game, until he was stripped naked. This scene really allowed Miller to shine as an actor, revealing the fear and vulnerability his character wasn’t prepared for. Although 8612 wanted to play a game, the environment was very real.
8612’s First Encounter with the Guards
Moments Later After the Guards Follow Directions to Strip Him
Miller was the perfect actor for the role, showing two extremes of reaction in a hostile environment. From leading a violent resistance against the guards to reaching his emotional breaking point after realizing he has no power, I think 8612 was symbolic for the oppressed who grieve their freedom.
Another actor I enjoyed watching was Billy Crudup (Watchmen, Almost Famous, Big Fish), who played Dr. Zimbardo.
What this film was able to do that the documentaries could not, was provide the real-time perspective and reaction of the project overseer.
At times, Zimbardo seemed like a mad scientist who was willing to sacrifice everything to get results. He even intervened and became a part of the experiment as Superintendent, encouraging the guards to use aggressive tactics to break apart alliances between the prisoners. Despite his obsessive behavior, he was also humanized as he watched in horror how quickly the guards accepted the role of abusers. His perspective also added depth to the story, allowing the viewer to step away from the action and become a passive observer like the researchers behind the cameras.
The Stanford Prison Experiment strives as a piece of historical fiction, prompting the viewer to go out and learn more about the notorious study. After finding the short documentary below, I came to learn that the dialogue was almost entirely verbatim from real life.
It’s “about 90 percent accurate,” Dr. Zimbardo was quoted in an American Psychological Association article in reference to the feature film. The 10% inaccuracies include: the unseen part of the experiment where prisoners were “processed” at a real police department. The students were also paid $20/day, not $15/day as the film suggested.
Despite criticism of the experiment (claiming that it was inconclusive because the subjects knew they were being recorded and performed the roles in stereotypical ways to satisfy the researcher), I think there is a lot to learn from this film. It was stressed throughout that the prisoners were losing their identity, but I think it’s important to remember that the guards didn’t have names either– Besides the bad guard known as “John Wayne” for his roughness, the rest were called “Mr. Correction Officer.” Their “unified singular authority” made them a single entity, controlled by the most dominant. The guards no longer felt individually responsible for torturing, but found themselves in a position where they could blame the role or group for the atrocities within the mock prison.
In the end, this is a film that raises more questions than it answers: When fate gives an authoritarian sadist power, is there a way to resist? How far should we push humans to test emotional breaking points? Are our actions motivated internally or externally? If you’re ready to watch the worst of humanity for two hours and think twice as long, The Stanford Prison Experiment is for you. Now available on Netflix.