Stanford Prison Experiment holds place in pop psyche decades on
James Wolk (Mike Penny), Billy Crudup (Dr. Philip Zimbardo) and Gaius Charles (Paul Vogel) in Kyle Alvarez’s The Stanford Prison Experiment.
(Credit: Steve Dietl / IFC Films)

Stanford County Prison existed only for six days in the summer of 1971, and even then only in the minds of a little more than a couple dozen people.

The cells were university offices, the prison yard a fluorescent-filled hallway, and the “hole” — solitary confinement — just a closet. The prisoners, the guards, they were young, white (save for one), mostly middle-class, college-age men. Craig Haney, one of the men who constructed the prison, describes it as a “very pallid, very modest simulation of a prison environment.”

And yet, what happened there persists today as one of the best-known psychology experiments ever, taught in almost every introductory psych course. A feature film dramatizing the Stanford Prison Experiment opened in the Bay Area on Friday.

Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo created the prison in an “attempt to understand just what it means psychologically to be a prisoner or a prison guard.” It was never meant to hold anybody, not physically anyway. The story (at least the simplified version) goes that over those six days, ordinary men became sadistic, abusive guards and, in turn, the prisoners steadily lost grip of their own identities. On Saturday, Aug. 21, 1971, just after the experiment ended, The Chronicle ran an article headlined “Prison Test — An Ugly Success.” It began: “A psychology experiment at Stanford University on the dynamics of prison life was terminated a week early yesterday because it had worked too well.”

‘Eat those sausages’

Decades later, the story holds an almost mythic place in our understanding of human nature — referenced in conversations about police brutality and Abu Ghraib — as a parable that is both horrifying and somewhat comforting in that it seems to explain something about our ability to do evil things.

“My own sense of it, in a way, is that it hooks into some basic questions that everybody wants to know about,” says psychologist Christina Maslach, Zimbardo’s wife, who was credited with convincing him that the experiment had gone too far. “Why do people do bad things? Why does evil exist? Nobody has answers to that.”

For many, the experiment has come to prove some fundamental truths about who we are — that, as the adage goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely, that we may all be capable of cruelty. Those conclusions, though, are too simple and too specific for an experiment with a much more complex narrative and a much broader lesson.

“Students barely get it,” Zimbardo said recently in the Russian Hill home he shares with Maslach. He’s a soft-spoken man who can recite, line for line, some of the conversations prisoners and guards had all those decades ago. “416, if you don’t eat those sausages do you know what I’m going to do?/ No, Sir./ I’m going to shove them up your ass, boy.” There’s no pausing, no stopping to remember.

In the 44 years since the experiment, Zimbardo has become something of a celebrity expert on the human capacity for evil; a “little study” has come to define him. Partly, that’s because he knows his way around the media, and partly, it’s timing. The day after the Stanford Prison Experiment ended, George Jackson attempted to escape from San Quentin State Prison. Then, three weeks later, the Attica Prison riot erupted in Upstate New York.

“The Stanford prison study immediately had national relevance,” Zimbardo said. “Here I am, knowing nothing about prisons, and I’m now one of the main presenters in Congress and in San Francisco.”

Later, when haunting images of the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison came to light, Zimbardo was back on TV, drawing parallels to the way guards acted in his long-ago prison simulation. He would later write about them in his book “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.” (Writing that book, he said, was like “swimming in liquid s—.”)

Near the end of the interview, he paused for a full two minutes to consider what it was, exactly, that we should take away from those six days in 1971. “The positive take on the whole thing, it’s really a celebration of the human mind’s infinite capacity to make any of us kind or cruel, caring or indifferent, creative or destructive. And it can make some of us do villainous things, and at the same time make others of us do heroic things.”

The Stanford Prison Experiment began Aug. 14, 1971. The skies were big and blue as local police showed up to arrest the “prisoners.” They were read their rights, patted down, handcuffed and taken to a police station where they were fingerprinted, photographed and finally blindfolded before being taken to the basement of Jordan Hall.

Once there, they were stripped, made to stand spread eagle, hands against the wall, as they were deloused. (“Without any staff encouragement, some guards begin to make fun of the prisoners’ genitals,” Zimbardo wrote in his book. “Such a guy thing!”) Finally, they were dressed in smocks with their prisoner numbers, silver chains bound their ankles, and they were given stocking caps to wear over their heads to simulate prison shaves. The guards, meanwhile, wore khaki uniforms from an Army surplus store, mirrored glasses so you couldn’t see their eyes (like in the movie “Cool Hand Luke”) and carried billy clubs.

Zimbardo had recruited the “subjects” through newspaper ads in the Stanford Daily and the Palo Alto Times. “Male college students needed for psychological study of prison life. $15 per day for 1-2 weeks.” In all, 75 men applied. Researchers put them through a battery of personality tests and chose 24 who registered “normal.” Then the researchers flipped a coin, separating, at random, the guards from the prisoners.

1st day was quiet

The first day, very little happened; Zimbardo, Haney (his research assistant at the time; now a psychologist himself) and the others involved worried that maybe nothing would. Soon, though, guards began verbally harassing the prisoners during roll call. They would punish prisoners with push-ups if they didn’t make their beds right or finish their meals. A prisoner rebellion — broken up with the spray of fire extinguishers — led guards to take away mattresses and blankets. Some prisoners were forced to spend hours in the hole.

There’s little doubt the prison setting affected the participants. “There were a few times when I had forgotten the prisoners were people, but I always caught myself, realized that they were people,” one of the guards wrote in his final evaluation, according to Zimbardo. Five of the prisoners were “paroled” throughout the experiment after research staff determined that the psychological trauma of the setting had become too much for them.

Sickening sight

Still, there were shades of gray. Not all of the prisoners broke down, and not all the guards mistreated them; only about a third of them did. Though, as Zimbardo is quick to note, the other guards, the “good” ones, never stepped in to stop the abuse. “There was no compassion in the sterility of that basement setting, the sterility of the prison.”

On Thursday, the night before the experiment ended, Maslach, a former student of Zimbardo’s who was then dating him, came to the prison to help with some interviews. “I looked at the line of hooded, shuffling, chained prisoners, with guards shouting orders at them — and then quickly averted my gaze,” she’s quoted as saying in Zimbardo’s book. The sight made her sick. The two wound up fighting outside the prison.

“I was beginning to think, ‘Who is this guy, and how could he see this so differently?” Maslach said in an interview. It was like “two people, opposite sides of the Grand Canyon.” Zimbardo had been caught up in his own role as the prison’s superintendent. When he got back to the basement, he found the guards forcing the remaining prisoners to simulate sex. “Now you two, you’re male camels. Stand behind the female camels and hump them.” The next day, he ended the experiment — one week early.

In the years since, the experiment has been challenged by participants and others in the social psychology field. One study looked at how using the phrase “prison life” in the initial advertisement might have affected the sort of participants it attracted. Most of the criticism, however, comes down to a matter of how real or natural any of the behavior was.

Carlo Prescott, who had served 17 years in San Quentin and helped advise on the experiment, wrote a piece for the Stanford Daily in 2005, essentially saying he regretted his participation. “Ideas such as bags being placed over the heads of prisoners, inmates being bound together with chains and buckets being used in place of toilets in their cells were all experiences of mine,” he wrote. “How can Zimbardo … express horror at the behavior of the ‘guards’ when they were merely doing what Zimbardo and others, myself included, encouraged them to do at the outset or frankly established as the ground rules?”

On several occasions, David Eshleman, perhaps the most abusive guard (prisoners called him “John Wayne”), has said he was putting on an act.

“After the first day and nothing was happening, I said, ‘Well, let’s give these people their money’s worth,’” he said in a phone interview. “In a sense, I was under the impression that I was pleasing the researchers with what I was doing.”

Increasingly cruel behavior

It’s easy to see why. In his book, Zimbardo describes the instructions he gave to the guards. “We cannot physically abuse or torture them (the prisoners). We can create boredom. We can create a sense of frustration. We can create fear in them, to some degree. We can create a notion of the arbitrariness that governs their lives, which are totally controlled by us.”

Even as Eshleman’s behavior became increasingly cruel, Zimbardo never intervened. His approval was implicit. In fact, Eshleman remembers a moment after it all when Zimbardo came up to him and offered a simple “You were great.”

The earliest and most notable breakdown — the most cinematic breakdown — came from Prisoner 8612. Thirty-six hours into the experiment, he’d already asked to be released once, he’d helped stage a prisoner rebellion and he’d spent considerable time in the hole. He was frantic. “I mean, Jesus Christ, I’m burning up inside! Don’t you know?” This became a central scene in the experiment’s narrative.

The prisoner’s name was Douglas Korpi; he’s a forensic psychologist now. In a phone interview, he said that, like Eshleman, he was acting. “The breakdown I had was a manipulation to get out of the damn experiment.” Faking it had real repercussions, though. “I put myself in a state of mental anguish and it was traumatizing for me to scream, to do those things. Whether you will it manipulatively or were forced into it by some psychotic break, it’s still upsetting to have to yell and scream.”

‘I was in control’

Another prisoner, Richard Yacco, also questions whether the experiment’s traumatic effects have been overstated. He was the last prisoner to be paroled. Apparently research staff thought he was on the brink of his own break. “I never felt that way.” He was a sleep-deprived 19-year-old who hadn’t been able to shower in days, but “I still felt like I was in control of myself.”

There’s more nuance still. A study, published in American Psychologist in 1975, pointed to how the role of the “guard,” as it’s understood popularly, might have affected behavior, essentially suggesting the guards acted like they would expect a guard to act. And a BBC re-creation of the experiment seems to indicate, in part, that Zimbardo’s instructions to the guards were highly influential on their behavior.

In the end, whether these various criticisms illuminate structural issues with the experiment seems almost beside the point. We’re left with a 45-year-old psychological study — a study that one social psychologist called an “insightful analysis” and another called “badly flawed” — that showed a group of young, middle-class men devolving into behavior that most of us hope is far beyond our own abilities. All in a matter of days.

‘And they persist’

As Haney, the former research assistant, pointed out: “Whether they were consciously playing a role or following orders or doing what the role requires, they do it, and they see the real negative consequences of what they are doing, and they persist.” Put another way, the situation and the roles it required were stronger than any one individual.

The lesson, which extends beyond the basement and rooms with bars, isn’t so much about evil — though it may have something to say about that — but rather about the roles we play and our own malleability. “The idea here is that we’d really like to believe that who we are is relatively permanent and fixed,” Zimbardo said. We’re fair. We’re kind. We’re just. “For me what the study says is, if I want to understand or predict your behavior, I’d rather know about the situation you are in than your personality profile.”

We love to believe in things like fate and free will, he said, that “I can choose my destiny. A or B.” Well, his study suggests, “Not always. Not really.”

Ryan Kost is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.

E-mail: Twitter: @RyanKost


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The Stanford Prison Experiment is now playing in select theaters.

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