Descent into the Maelström—A Prison Experiment at Stanford University

Film Reviews

Britton A. Taylor

The 2015 film The Stanford Prison Experiment, based on the actual psychological experiment of 1971, is an incredibly moving production that tests the manner in which social roles effect human nature. This film also leads the audience to consider the power of the situation in regards to the moral choice that we all face: whether to do good or evil.

Conducted by Stanford University professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo, the experiment was based on psychological theory and Zimbardo’s personal curiosity regarding how prison institutions affect the mental state of those involved in the system. What started as a simple experiment quickly escalated into a shocking demonstration of how societal roles affect the moral standing of people, and how institutions become breeding grounds for physical abuse, psychological torment, and moral deterioration. The current United States prison system adopts these same exact practices, and the 1971 experiment only proved Zimbardo’s theory that the  system is flawed in a manner that encourages violence and disregards the basic needs of humans. In short, prison violence and abuse are not circumstantial, but are a natural consequences of the structuring and underlying philosophies of our penal systems.

The movie begins with Zimbardo (played by Billy Crudup) creating an advertisement requesting male Stanford students for the study and offering them $15 a day to participate in the two-week long experiment. The students are interviewed and selected at random to be either ‘prisoners’ or ‘guards.’ At first none of the students take their roles seriously, and there is a brief period of adjustment while the students test their role and are introduced to the premise of the experiment. But then one prisoners is disrespectful and disobeys a guard, and this changes the situation causing things to violently escalate.

The guards begin to fear that their authority is threatened because of the disrespect, and in a moment of rashness and in the attempt to regain dominance, one of the guards becomes violent. As the other guards watch him regain control over the prisoner, a domino-effect commences and multiple guards begin to abuse the prisoners verbally, mentally, and physically. The guards feel justified in their actions, especially when it comes to humiliating and  ridiculing the prisoners, but it is more than this: controlling the prisoners feels makes the guards feel good. The psychologists observing the experiment do not intervene or try to stop the student guards, and what began as a punishment for a prisoner disobeying orders escalates into torture.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is an example of how the abuse of power can lead to the mental, physical, and even sexual abuse in our prisons. This film notes how the current system can encourage prison violence, whether it be between prisoners or between prisoners and guards, because of basic human nature. The system in the experiment prison, similar to many of current prisons, puts prisoners and guards against each other in a constant battle for power.

Stanford also outlines the psychological effects of guard and prisoner roles and how these roles contribute to the issue. Zimbardo in his bookThe Lucifer Effect discusses how the lack of supervision, and the lack of their intervention, led the guards to continue testing their power and see how far they could push the prisoners. To endure this treatment, the prisoners either lash out violently, become entirely stoic and submissive, or just breakdown.

Evil consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize, or destroy innocent others—or using one’s authority and systemic power to encourage or permit others to do so on your behalf. In short, it is ‘knowing better but doing worse. (Zimbardo 4)

In the film version of the experiment, this complex of control is visible in the mock prison guards because each of them played a role in this moral corruption—either acting as the perpetrator or acting as a bystander. The Stanford Prison Experiment may be just a movie, but it’s not. This film is a reflection of Zimbardo’s observations on the current United States prison system and how it effects the people in both uniforms.

Group pressures, authority symbols, dehumanization of others, imposed anonymity, dominant ideologies that enable spurious ends to justify immoral means, lack of surveillance, and other situational forces can work to transform even some of the best of us into Mr. Hyde monsters. (Zimbardo 5)

In his article “Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment: A Lesson in the Power of Situation” that was written more than 30 years after this episode in the mock prison, Zimbardo argues that the actual violence and abuse by the prison “guards” began as retaliation for troublesome prisoners, but quickly escalated in an attempt for these guards to remain in control. Zimbardo describes “creative evil,” and the various ways in which the guards would physically, mentally, and sexually abuse the prisoners. The guards were clearly instructed that they were not to hit or assault the prisoners under any circumstances. To enforce dominance while also minding this rule, the guards thought up some “creative” punishments for the prisoners, such as commanding two prisoners to act as “Frankenstein” and the “Bride of Frankenstein,” and forcing half of the prisoners to “act like female camels” while the other half were told to “do what the male camels do to the female camels,” resulting in imitated sodomy.

Zimbardo’s argument is that anyone can fall victim to a bad situation, and that none of the students were “bad” people. In this particular instance, however; “Situation won, and humanity lost” (Zimbardo 4). Zimbardo warns that all people should be aware of this social vulnerability in their nature and the instinctual need for power in social situations.

Throughout the film, a significant portion of the “creative evil” stems from ridicule and humiliation. By perceiving the prisoners as a threat, the guards feel the need to put the prisoners in their place. They do this through making fun of the prisoners, forcing them to perform ridiculous tasks for the sake of getting a laugh from the other guards. When the “John Wayne” guard asks the two prisoners to act like “Frankenstein” and the “Bride of Frankenstein,” he recognizes that this is a strange command. Wayne looks to one of his fellow guards who laughs, which gives Wayne the approval he needs to proceed with the “punishment.” This parallels J. Michael Waller’s theory of ridicule:

Ridicule leverages the emotions and simplifies the complicated and takes on the powerful… Ridicule can tear down faster than the other side can rebuild. (Waller 75)

By using humor, Wayne simplified the situation and gained the upper hand. His peer didn’t consider the twisted nature of the punishment, but just laughed.

In Analyzing Torture: Manufacturing a Primer of Abuse in US Domestic Prisons, Susan Phillips discusses accounts of legitimate previous inmates and their experiences in prison, which includes solitary confinement, physical abuse, mental abuse, and even sexual humiliation and exploitation. All of the above can be observed in The Stanford Prison Experiment, from “The Hole” to forced nudity and mental torment. Phillips blames the correctional officers for the majority of prison violence and recorded abuses, and she argues that many times punishment is taken out of hand. Phillips’s argument applies to Stanford, as the violence started as a simple punishment and gradually escalated into unthinkable abuses.

Developing oversight, making sure that prisons operate by the letter of the law, and relying on punishment fail to tackle the root causes of incarceration and to demonstrate the limitations of human rights as a discourse for change. (Phillips 59)

Phillips goes on to describe the manner in which guards utilized legal tactics in illegal ways, such as using dowel guns to play “skip-shot,” a “game” in which correctional officers aim the projectile at the floor so that it shatters upwards into the legs of inmates. Another example is correctional officers filling children’s water guns with pepper spray and dousing inmates.

Phillips also drives the point that United States culture is ignorant to the abuses taking place because we associate violence with prison so often. There are many parallels between The Stanford Prison Experiment and the cases of abuse outlined in this article, including the physical, mental, and sexual abuse, the neglect of the mentally ill, the overuse of solitary confinement and restraint, among other examples. For example, when a Stanford prisoner was placed in “The Hole” for an extended period of time and began to experience mental distress, he was simply ignored by the correctional officers and the overseers of the experiment because he “could [have been] faking it.”

Dr. Susan Phillips argues that this treatment is unconstitutional, arguing that this violates the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury… nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor… be deprived of life, liberty, or property…; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation. (U.S. Constitution, Amend V)

There are many legal arguments that contend that solitary confinement violates the letter and spirit of the Fifth Amendment in regards to the deprivation of “life, liberty, or property,” yet others counter that a prisoner gives up his or her rights when they break the law. Brij Khindaria focuses on solitary confinement as abuse and explores the case of the “Alabama Three”—three men who pled innocent to the murder of a prison guard. One of the “Alabama Three” has been held in solitary confinement for 41 years. All scientific evidence exposes the harmful psychological and even physical effects of solitary confinement, and yet the United States continues to utilize this form of punishment.

In the end, Zimbardo argues that prison abuse and violence is a result of the way the United States prison system functions. He states clearly in his report that, “the situation and the system creating it also must share in the responsibility for illegal and immoral behavior” (Zimbardo 5). Judging by the information presented, it can be concluded that Zimbardo is correct and also has the most knowledge from personal experience. He watched the violence unfold firsthand in his experiment and saw the evolution of students’ personalities when forced to conform to specific societal roles.

While some might argue that this issue cannot be solved, and that violence in prisons is inevitable, Zimbardo and others argue that we can prevent the abuse of power that is observed and documented in many U.S. prisons. On behalf of the Stanford Prison Experiment, Zimbardo argues that a need for social power is human nature. This execution of social power can take the form of prisoner rebelling or a guard enforcing harsh and unusual punishments. Both of these examples are of a person seeking more social power or more authority.

Zimbardo also argues that by implementing protocols and higher supervising authorities, prison abuse can be limited significantly, if not eradicated entirely. In The Stanford Prison Experiment film, Zimbardo is encouraged by an assistant to intervene after the first instance of violence, but out of personal curiosity he did not. By staging an intervention at the first rule violation, Zimbardo could have prevented the rest of the abuse that ensued. The same could be said for prison abuse. If guards are made to follow protocol and are held accountable by a higher authority, then the abuse and neglect of prisoners would be cut down significantly.

The Standford Prison Experiment is not just a film to recreate Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 experiment, it is also a grossly accurate representation of how the United States prison system effects the people on both sides. It is a depiction of the imbalance of power implemented in most prisons and how it evolves into abusive behavior. The system itself instigates violence. Dr. Phillips makes the point, “there can be no such thing as a compliant prisoner. To survive behind bars necessitates the opposite of compliance. Each sentence begins anew the game of posturing, pursuit, hedging, affiliation, and abuse…” (Phillips 64).

All of the factors that make the United States prison system are the same factors that tear it apart. This system needs the remedy of intervention, responsibility, and accountability. United States prisons need reform, and while it is late, it is not too late for America learn its lesson from the original experiment of 1971.

(1). Diogenes, Marvin. Laughing matters. Pearson Longman, 2009.

(2). Hayden, Thomas. “Putting Down a Riot.” U.S. News & World Report, vol. 136, no. 21, 14 June  2004, p. 72.

(3). Khindaria, Brij. “UN Expert Criticizes Torture in American Prisons.” Moderate Voice, 08 Oct.  2013, p. 16.

(4). Phillips, Susan A. “Rewriting Torture: Manufacturing a Primer of Abuse in US Domestic  Prisons.” Social Justice, vol. 43, no. 4, Oct. 2016, pp. 44-68.

(5). Zimbardo, Philip. The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. Random  House, 2013.

(6). Zimbardo, Philip G. “Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment: A Lesson in the Power of Situation.” Chronicle of Higher Education, vol. 53, no. 30, 30 Mar. 2007, p. B6.