You’ve all heard the story about the Stanford Prison Experiment, run by now-famous Stanford Professor Philip Zimbardo. It’s been made into a film, documented in innumerable books, and repeated ad infinitum in psychology 101 textbooks. The experiment supposedly went something like this: a group of volunteers was randomly separated into two groups. The first group became prisoners; the second became prison guards. Within days, the prison guards had become brutal monsters and the prisoners hapless victims driven to the brink of insanity. The experimenters shut down the experiment within a week.
There’s only one problem with the study: it hasn’t been replicated. It’s not true.
According to a new article at Medium from Ben Blum, it was all nonsense. One of the prisoners, who famously began shouting about how he couldn’t stand it in the prison anymore, told Blum that he had faked his breakdown, and that when he led a prison “rebellion,” it was all in good fun: “We knew [the guards] couldn’t hurt us, they couldn’t hit us. They were white college kids just like us, so it was a very safe situation. It was just a job. If you listen to the tape, you can hear it in my voice: I have a great job. I get to yell and scream and act all hysterical.”
The only scary part of the experiment was that the prisoners were told they couldn’t leave for any reason, apparently. At least one of the prisoners said he wished he had sued Zimbardo.
As for the guards, Zimbardo deliberately told them to play nasty. His graduate student “warden,” David Jaffe, “was given the responsibility of trying to elicit ‘tough-guard’ behavior.” Jaffe, in other words, instructed the guards to be brutal – and corrected them when they weren’t being brutal enough. The worst guard, Dave Eshelman, later explained, “I took it as a kind of improv exercise. I believed that I was doing what the researchers wanted me to do, and I thought I’d do it better than anybody else by creating this despicable guard persona. I’d never been to the South, but I used a southern accent, which I got from Cool Hand Luke.”
Zimbardo apparently lied about all of this, saying it was all genuine:
In his 1973 article in the New York Times Magazine, Zimbardo wrote unequivocally that Korpi’s breakdown was genuine. By the mid 1980s, when he asked Korpi to appear on the Phil Donahue show and in the documentary Quiet Rage, Korpi had long since made clear that he’d been faking, but Zimbardo still wanted to include the breakdown. Korpi went along with it. ... On October 25, 1971, a mere two months after concluding an experiment so stressful that he lost ten pounds in the span of a week, Philip Zimbardo traveled to Washington D.C. at the request of the House Committee on the Judiciary. In the hearing chamber, Zimbardo sat before the assembled Congressmen of Subcommittee 3 and told a whopper: the “guards” in his recent experiment “were simply told that they were going to go into a situation that could be serious and have perhaps some danger. … They made up their own rules for maintaining law, order, and respect.”
What, then, is the lesson of the experiment, if any? Only that if we believe in the cause, we’ll do anything. People don’t necessarily tend toward cruelty for the sake of cruelty; we aren’t all secret sadists. But we will be cruel to one another on behalf of a “higher good.”
The same lesson has come out from repeated attempts to duplicate the famous Milgram experiment – the experiment in which volunteers were told that they were to electrically shock other volunteers for giving incorrect answers. Prodded along by scientists, those volunteers supposedly turned up the electricity to the point where the shocked patients, who were actually actors, began screaming. How many people actually turned up the dials all the way? It all depended on how invested they were in the scientific experiment itself – whether they believed they were doing some good.
The human capacity to treat others as means rather than as ends in and of themselves is well-proven. But we are not all budding sadists, or Nazis in the making. Only when we’re invested with the utter necessity of a cause do we open ourselves up to the possibility of true evil. Which is why we should pick our causes very carefully.