Last Wednesday I invited a friend to see The Stanford Prison Experiment at Landmark Cinema. Having read a couple of blurbs about the movie's release a few weeks ago, I had a basic idea as to its premise. My interest was piqued because the subject matter took me back twenty or so years ago when I was teaching sociology. This film shows what happens to people's behavior when they are assigned certain statuses in a specific social environment. In this case, what happens when individuals are told to play "guards" and "prisoners" in a mock penal institution.
Though not a documentary, SPE portrays what went on in 1971 when a Stanford University psychologist and his research team conducted a controversial experiment on campus. His name as Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup). Funded by the Office of U.S. Naval Research, he has funds to pay twenty-four males selected from an original pool of seventy-five candidates to act as "guards" and "prisoners" in the basement of the psychology department for a period not to exceed fourteen days.
At the outset, the guards were told that they could not physically harm the prisoners. However, they were encouraged to foster a sense of fear in their charges, remove any semblance of privacy, and create an authoritarian atmosphere in which the subjects had not control over what happened to them.
The guards were attired in khaki uniforms from a nearby military surplus store, carried wooden batons, and wore mirrored sunglasses to prevent any eye contact between them and their subjects. Prisoners were clothed in uncomfortable smocks and stocking caps and carried a chain around one ankle. They were addressed by a four-digit number instead of their names.
Within a short period of time, the prisoners became very restive. In turn, their guards became more and more verbally and physically abusive. The subjects of the experiment no longer were "role-playing" guards and prisoners. The behavior was disturbingly real.
Perhaps, one of the more disquieting parts of the film turned out to be Zimbardo's involvement in his own so-called scientific experiment. As some of the prisoners began to display emotional and psychological trauma, he refused to intervene in a situation that unraveled quickly before him and his team.
Designed to extend over fourteen days, the Stanford Prison closed its doors after six. How come? Ask a friend to go with and find out. I think you may agree that it's one thing to have discussed a thought-provoking experiment in an introductory behavioral science course many years ago, but it's another to see what happened when it was actually carried out.