The Stanford Prison Experiment

published on July 9, 2020

One of the most infamouspsychological studiesever conductedwas the Stanford PrisonExperimentIt's mentioned in almost everyintro to psychology textbookThey tend to focus onhow unethical it was,and are less criticalof its supposed conclusion August 14th, 1971

Palo Alto, California Twelve young men are rounded up from their homes by police, placed under arrest, and brought to a makeshift prison in the basement of Stanford University It all begins as a study on the psychology of prison life,

led by Stanford psychology professor Dr Philip Zimbardo 24 volunteers– 12 guards and 12 prisoners –have agreed to spend the next two weeks recreating life in a correctional facility The prisoners are booked and stripped nude

They're no longer individuals, forced to wear smocks, stocking caps and shackles Identified only by their prisoner numbers The guards quickly adapt to their new profession Given anonymity by their mirrored sunglasses, some of them start to control the meager food rations,

restrict prisoners' bathroom use And, as tensions rise, so do their cruel methods Within just six days of the planned two-week study, conditions are so bad that the entire operation is shut down

Goddamn it The study makes international headlines Zimbardo's fame skyrockets, and his conclusions are taught to students worldwide, used as a defense in criminal trials and are even submitted to Congress

to explain the abuses inflicted at Abu Ghraib The study brings up a question just as important then as it is today: is evil caused by the environment, or the personalities in it? Zimbardo's shocking conclusion

is that when people feel anonymous and have power over depersonalized others, they can easily become evil And it occurs more often than we'd like to admitBut while it's true that peoplewere mean to each otherduring the StanfordPrison Experiment,

What if what truly causedthat behaviorwasn't what we've alwaysbeen told? The Stanford Prison Experiment has always had its controversies But a wave of recent revelations have pushed it back into the spotlight

47 years later Today, I'm going to speak with journalist Ben Blum, whose recent writings have brought criticism of the experiment to a larger audience than ever beforeHow did you get involved inthe Stanford Prison Experiment

In the first place?Well, my involvementwas quite personalLike everyone,I had kind of absorbedthe basic lessonof the experimentthrough the cultural etherAnd then my cousin Alexwas arrested for bank robbery

This was a team of mostlymilitary guys with AK-47sAlex was the driverHe was a 19-year-oldUS Army RangerAnd it was a superior of hison the Rangersthat organized and ledthe bank robberyAlex thought the whole thingwas a training exercise

He was just so brainwashedin this intense Ranger trainingthat when a superior proposedthis bank robbery,he took it as just one more kindof tactical thought experimentThen Dr Philip Zimbardoparticipatedin his legal defenseZimbardo submits a letterto the court,

Advocating leniencyin sentencing on the groundsthat Alex, my cousin,had been so transformedby the social environmentof the Ranger battalionthat he participatedin the bank robberywithout exercisinghis own free willWell, how did that affectAlex's sentencing?

He received an extraordinarilylenient sentence of 16 monthsSo Zimbardo was a family heroBut over time, Alex,finally he did admit to me,you know what, I knew this wasa bank robbery by the end,and I just didn't have the moralcourage to back outOh, wow

Alex, myself and ourwhole familycame to viewthe Zimbardo argumentas a way to shirk personalculpability,and to put all the blameon the situationSo you start lookingat the Stanford PrisonExperiment in particular

You reached out to Dr Zimbardohimself,as well as some of thosewho participatedWhat did you learn?I learned,to my deep surprise,that quite a numberof the participantshad stories of their experiencethat completely contradicted

The official narrativeWhich is, look,these regular people,good people,came together,and because of the situation,became evilRightZimbardo has claimedthat the guards

Were put in the situation,and then the kind of hiddenwellspring of sadismthat apparently liesin all of usunfolded organicallyThere was an orientation meetingfor the guardsThey had been toldquite explicitly

To oppress the prisonersThat falls under the headingof what psychologists calldemand characteristicsExperimental subjectstend to be motivatedto give experimenterswhat they want Demand characteristics occur

whenever participants being studied act differently than they normally would because they've guessedwhat hypothesis is being tested and feel that a certain kind of behavior is being demandedThere was a recordingof explicitly correcting a guardwho wasn't being tough enough

So a conclusionyou could makefrom the StanfordPrison Experimentis that when you tell peopleto be cruel,they'll do it if you tell themit's for a greater good,like science-Right-Who would have thought?

I think the study stands stillas a fascinating spurto further more careful researchas a demonstration that shouldmake anyone curiousas to how such extreme behaviorcould arisein such a short timeThe experiment could stillbe useful,

But it might need to bereinterpretedIts data might leadto different conclusionsthan the one that we've beentelling for so many decadesRight The flaws in the experiment that Ben and other critics bring up

call into question large portions of the narrative surrounding the study So I want to hear from someone who was actually there Dave Eshelman, the study's most infamous guard, agreed to tell me his side of the storyIt's really an honorto meet you

You're a living, walking pieceof psychology historyI'm never recognized in thestreet or anything like that,although I still getsome hate mail-Are you serious?-Yeah, absolutelyWell, what do you say to themwhen they react that way?I say, well, there's probablya lot about that

That didn't happen quite the wayit's been portrayedWell, Dave,before we go too far,I'd like to watch the footagewe have hereso we can kind of talk aboutwhat we seeThat's me there, by the way- Look at that look- Mm-hmm

So how did you get involved witha Stanford Prison Experiment?My father was a professorat Stanford,and I was home for summer,looking for a summer jobSo I'm lookingthrough the want ads$15 a dayYou know,in 1971 that wasn't bad

The way it was introducedto the guards,the whole conceptof this experiment,we were never led to believethat we were partof the experimentWe were led to believethat our jobwas to get resultsfrom the prisoners,

That they were the onesthe researchersare really studyingThe researcherswere behind the wallAnd we all knewthey were filmingAnd we can often hearthe researcherscommenting on the actionfrom the other side of the wall

You know, like,"Oh, gosh, did you see that?Here Make sure you geta close-up of that"Okay? So if they want to showthat prison is a bad experience,I'm going to make it badBut how did you feeldoing stuff like that?Didn't you feel bad?

I don't know if thisis a revelation to you,but 18-year-old boys are notthe most sensitive creatures-Sure-My agenda was to bethe worst guardI could possibly be-And it's pretty serious-Mm-hmmThis is my favorite partof all the footage we have

-from the experiment-Mm-hmmIt's you and a prisonerconfronting each otherafter the experimentI remember the guy saying,"I hate you, man"-Yeah-"I hate you"Each day I said, well,what can we do to ramp up

What we did yesterday?How can we build on that?Why did you wantto ramp things up?Two reasons, I thinkOne was becauseI really believedI was helping the researcherswith some better understanding

Of human behaviorOn the other hand,it was personallyinteresting to meYou know, I cannot say that Idid not enjoy what I was doingMaybe, you know,having so much powerover these poor,defenseless prisoners,

You know, maybe you kind ofget off on that a little bitYou weren't entirely followinga script from a directorRightBut you also felt likeZimbardo wanted somethingfrom you-Yes-And you gave that to him

I believe I didI think I decidedI was going to do a better jobthan anybody thereof deliveringwhat he wantedBut does that excuse mefrom what I was doing?Certainly it started outwith me playing a roleSo the question is, was therea point where I stopped acting

And I started living,so to speak?The standard narrative is thatDave Eshelman did what he didbecause when peopleare given power,it's easier than we thinkfor abuse to happenThat may be true,but how predisposedto aggression was Dave?

I mean, he signed upto something calleda "prison study," after allAlso, his feelingthat cruelty was encouragedand helped the experiment,may have affected his behaviorWhat I'd like to see is,in the absenceof outside influence,

Can anonymity, power,and depersonalization alonelead to evil? To answer that question, I'd like to design a demonstration of my own So I'm meeting with Dr Jared Bartels

of William Jewell College, a psychologist who has written extensively about the Stanford Prison Experiment and how it is taughtI would love to do the StanfordPrison Experiment againYou could probably make itmore ethical,

But still find the sameconclusionsThat's my hypothesisI absolutely thinkit's worthwhileIt's importantIt's interestingProbably the best approachis eliminate as best as possiblethe demand characteristics

By eliminating thatprisoner/guard dynamicWhy do we even need to call onegroup "guards"and one "prisoners"?There's a lot of expectationsaround those rolesOh, I'm a guard?

-I guess I should act like aguard -Yeah, you're rightThe cover story is reallyimportant,and you want to hide the truepurpose of the experimentAnother piece of thisis the role of personalityand personality traitsSo the original adin the Stanford study

Asked for participantsfor a study of prison lifeYou know, that's going to drawcertain peoplethat were more kind of disposedto aggressionBecause they saw the word"prison" and thought,-"I want to be a part of that"-ExactlySo when you get a group

Of kind of authoritarian-mindedindividuals together,not surprisinglythey're going to createan authoritarian regimeand environmentSo, for whatever it is thatwe're going to do,we should evaluatethe personalitiesof the individuals

RightSo how do we give peopleevery opportunityto be as evil as they can?I think you haveto have those elementsthat were assumedto be influentialin the Stanford study

What are those elements?You have to havethe depersonalizationYou have to have anonymityYou have to have some powerdifferencesCan we elicitsome surprising behaviorsin just a number of hours?

If you kind of come backto the Stanford study,there wasn't anything dramaticthat happened-in the first day of the study-YeahIt was the second dayof the studywhen the guards started toassert their authorityThat came about becauseof prisoners testing

And challenging the guards'authorityYeah, and that led to fearThat, like, wait a second,these prisoners need to be-put more in check-Yeah YeahSo I think you still needthat provocationYeah

Something that is frustratingSomething that's goingto increasethe participants' arousalRight All right, so, Jared,would you liketo spend some time nowbrainstorming a new design

That peeks into the samequestions?-Absolutely-Awesome Jared and I sat down with the Mind Field crew to begin the planning processWill a person,without any expectationsor pushes in a certain directionstill be abusive or not?

For this demonstration, we want to eliminate all outside variables and really isolate the three core elements of the Stanford Prison Experiment The first element is anonymity Subjects need to believethat no matter how they behave,

no one will know it was themThis is where people will becoming in in the morningThis way, everyone's going to bestaggered when they come inThat's important,because we don't want themto ever meet their teammatesface-to-face The original experiment gave guards anonymity

by providing mirrored sunglasses and uniforms But we're taking it much further Our study will take place in a room that is pitch-blackThey'll be taken into this roomAh I would love to see how darkthis room is going to betomorrow

Yeah, absolutely-You ready?-I'm ready-Oh, yeah- Right?This is uncomfortable Despite the darkness, we will be able to see everything,

thanks to infrared cameras The second element is depersonalization From the moment the subjects arrive, they will only be identified by number, not nameSo, come on in To eliminate the demand characteristics,

we don't want our subjects to know what we're studyingFollow the sound of my voice,if you can All they'll be told is that we are studying how they solve puzzles in the darkThere is another teamin a different location-who is also solving a puzzle-Okay

Because the words "guard" and "prisoner" suggest certain expected behaviors, we've done away with them and will simply give our participants an unseen, distantly located opposing team We will measure the cruelty predicted

by the standard narrative of the Stanford Prison Experiment by giving our participants a way to exercise the third element: powerWhat I'm going to show you nextis the systemby which you can send thema loud noise

-Okay-So if you want to We've armed the teams with a "distractor button" that they can press to blast an extremely loud, jarring noise into the other team's room Everyone will have a volume dialthat ranges from level 1 to 12,

and they'll be told that anything below a 7 should be safe for the other team's hearingAnd each personhas their own controlOkaySo they can't seewhat you're doing-You can't seewhat they're doing-Okay

The intensity level they select, as well as the frequency with which they push the button, will be our indicator of how aggressive the participants become in this situationIs it– is it pretty,like, terrible to hear?Well, I'll give youa demonstration

Hey, Derek, could you playlevel 3 for me?So that's a 3It's pretty-it's pretty loud-YeahPerfect Participants will be told that when they

or a member of their team pushes a distractor button, the volume played in the opponent's room will be determined by the highest level selected on any of their teammates' dialsThis is to increase the feeling of diffused responsibility The question is, will any of these participants

Take advantage of these factors and act sadistically? Of course, we would never want anyone to actually be harmed in our experiments, so the other team? They don't exist Instead, Jared and I will be the ones

occasionally blasting the group with noise at a safe level, no higher than a 3 To see just how powerful the situation can be, we selected participants who would not be predisposed to sadism We screened our participants

using the "Big 5 Personality Scale," "The Personality Assessment Inventory," and picked those who scored the highest in "moral" categories, like honesty and conscientiousnessIt looks like,you know,

They should be ableto see each otherBut it's pitch-darkThere are puzzle pieceson the table in front of youThank you, and once I leavethe room you may beginOkay, here we goI definitely don't thinkthey're conscious

Of the control panelat this point-No-They're trying to get focusedon the task hereWe picked peoplewho were most likelyto have these kindsof personalities-Oh-She wantsAll right

— Did somebody do it already?-I did-Yeah-Okay-We should retaliate-Yeah, retaliate nowNow, they're not retaliatingagainst that most recent buzzShall we try again?

Despite the factors making it easy for them to do so, this team doesn't appear to be turning evilNow they are, like,just deal with itJust ignore it and keepworking togetherThey're not interestedin retaliating Over the course of the two-hour study,

we blasted them with noise 23 timesBut they only pushed the button six times, and never above a level 5 They didn't seem to abuse their powerPuzzle pieces down What would happen if we introduced

demand characteristics that encouraged them to act aggressively?Your team has beenrandomly assignedan experimental conditionAlthough the other teamwill continue workingon a puzzle,

Your team will notYour only task is to operatethe distractorsAlso, the other team's buttonshave been disconnectedwithout their knowledgeYou will not hear any soundsif they buzz back at youWe introducethe social roles,

Where there's a little bitof power differentialWe're kind of mimicking theStanford-like variables here By now saying that the buzzer is their "task," the participants may feel a greater license to use it liberally Similar to how instructing prison guards

in the original experiment to act tough may have encouraged more use of force Even though they were given instructions to distract the other team, these participants instead just started chatting with one anotherThey know that they can bedistracting now,

But they're not pushing thebuttonNoOh OkayA couple of threesOver the course of ten minutes, this group only pushed the button three times

Why do you thinkthey're so uninterestedin blastingthe other team?Because we have individualswho have been selected, really,with that predisposition,right?These are individualswho shouldn't be interestedin retaliating

It was time to debrief the participants on what we were actually studyingI'm going to turn the lights onHere I am I'm Michael,and this is JaredWe're going to debrief you onwhat was really happening todayThere are no other people

You are the only four here atthis momentThere was never another teamdoing anythingThis is a study related tothe Stanford Prison ExperimentThe standard narrativewe hear about that experimentis that peoplejust become cruelSo, yeah, we're trying to see ifwe get the nicest people we can,

And we give them completeanonymityand the ability to be cruel,but never encourage them to,will they still do it?And you guys didn'tDid you have any suspicionsabout what we were studyingor what was going on?

Right, but I thinkthat's goodWe just want to make sureyou don't thinkthat what we're reallylooking atis how high you turnyour own dialThat's reallywhat we're looking at It was time to bring in our second group of participants,

who, like the first group,were screened to be individuals with high morality characteristicsAnything up to 7should be safeYeah So once I leave, you can go ahead and get started

OhRight off the bat she went to 7and pushed the buttonYeahNumber two's pushing it at a 3Okay, here comes number twoNumber two is stillat a volume 3

This team seemed more willing to retaliate Let's see what will happen if we continue buzzing them Will they escalate their behaviors?Derek, let's blast them againNumber 3Okay, let'sAll right, so two just pushedat a 3

But she's not touching the dialShe's notIt's just annoying It was clear that participant number two was really the only one hitting the distractor button, but it appeared that she only did it in retaliation

to our buzzes So we decided to see what would happen if we laid offIt's been probablyfour or five minutes,and we have not blasted themwith the noise,and they haven'tplayed one either

I have a feeling like if wenever played a noise in theirroom,they would never touchthe distractor buttonProbably not at this point In the end, we buzzedthis group a total of 44 times, and they buzzed us 38 times, 37 of which came from number two

but always in retaliation, and never above a 5All right, guysPuzzle pieces down The situational factors did not seem to be sufficient to make this group sadistic It was time for phase 2Yeah

-Oh, she-It looks like it's at 7-Wow-Yeah, she's–She's going nutsAt a 7So number three believesthere is no other teamThat might explain why she wasjust going nuts on the button,

Because she doesn't feel badabout itOkay, they're all pushingthe button a lot moreAnd they were toldthis timethat it was theironly taskWhat a differencethis has madeJust like in the StanfordPrison Experiment

If you tell peoplethat they have a certain taskto do, they'll do it,even if it's going to meanthat they've been brokenThe thing is, they never hitupon what we really cared about,which is turning the dialinto an unsafe levelYeah

Hello, everyoneI'm going to turn the lights onin this roomOkay-And slowly-Ah, it hurtsyou can lookSo, hello-I'm Michael,and this is Jared-Hi

I'll give you timeto adjust your eyesToday, you've been partof a study where all we wantedwas to see what would happenwhen we put people in a roomand gave them that feelingof anonymitythat comes from, well,if I crank my dial upreally high,

No one will knowit's meSo you have this opportunityto be cruelI thoughtI went nutsLike, when the other personwas pressing–Sure, but that's–that's just in-kind retributionAs it turns out,so far,

Everyone stays in that"below 7 or under" range-Yeah-This final phase was ustrying to ramp upthe demand characteristicsAnd I believe number one, right,you did say at one point,"You've broken meI did it, fine"So I loved that phrase,because it says

"I didn't want to do this,but I'm doing it because Ibelieve it was expected of me"Thank you Thanks After dismissing our participants, Jared and I sat down to discuss our resultsReally fascinating

We brought in people who hadvery different personalitiesthan those Zimbardo choseWe put them in a situation thatdid not demand things from themAnd they behaved accordingto that personalityI think we have some intriguingsupport for the ideathat it's more than justthe situation

We really saw personalitykind of shine throughFor the most part,they seemed to be aware-of where that line is-Yeahthat they shouldn't cross,and they didn'tNone of them did It was now time to speak with the man himself,

Dr Philip Zimbardo, who I worked with on last season's episode, "How to Make a Hero"Okay Lisa, Bear,you guys ready? For years, Dr Zimbardo has responded to criticisms of his famous study,

always maintaining that they aren't valid I asked him about whether his study is better seen as one on the power of demands from authority, but he wasn't receptive to that ideaI then told him about the study we ran to get his reaction

I wanted to know what thesufficient conditions might beto make anyonedo something evilAnd we struggledto get that to happenWe couldn't get anyoneto be cruelJust giving them anonymity,and a dehumanized other,and the powerto hurt that other,

They didn't takeadvantage of it Well, I mean, maybe the problem was, here's a case where, by picking people who were extremely conscientious, extremely mindful, by selecting people who are high on compassion,

high on mindfulness, you broke the power of the situation In the Stanford Prison Experiment, we had, I presume, a relatively normal distribution We gave them six personality scales

And we picked people who, in the scales, who were mostly in the mid-range In that situation, some people behave cruelly, evilly Not everybody, but more of the guards than not So, again, I think that your study is a demonstration

Of one way in which personality dominates situation-Ah -Where the personalities are– so I would say it's a positive result The personalities are specialWhere does this balance liebetween the personal,the disposition,the personality,

And the situation,the environment? No, that's the big– that's the ultimate question Where is, you know, how much of one and how much of the other?Right

Zimbardo insiststhat demand characteristicsplayed little rolein his subject's behaviorCritics like Ben Blumsay they played a big role,that what happenedwas what was asked forIf that's true,then the StanfordPrison Experiment,

Like the classic Milgram study,still has an important lessonPeople are quick to be cruelif an authority figure suggeststhat doing sowill serve a greater causeIn our test, we made sure thatsuch influences didn't existAnd not one participantacted maliciously

Personality rose abovethe situationLearning how that happensis vitalif we want to improve conditionswhere power is involvedSo it's great that this debateis still ongoingAnd look, questioning methodsand interpretationsis not a personal attack

It's how we improveour confidence in what we knowAnd that's how science worksSo stay curious,never stop asking questions,and, as always,thanks for watchingHey, Mind FieldMichael Stevens hereThere is so much moreto satisfy your hunger

For psychological knowledgeright on this showClick below to check outmore episodes

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