Wednesday, March 7, 2012

"The lie of the Stanford Prison Experiment"

This 2005 Stanford Daily article by Carlo Prescott (reposted below) on the famous Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) raises serious questions about both the reasons for the experiment, and the conclusions drawn by Dr. Philip Zimbardo and others regarding its controversial results. Mr. Prescott was one of the individuals involved in organizing the experiment, whose team was led by psychologist Phil Zimbardo. Dr. Zimbardo achieved a great deal of fame for this effort. In 2002 he served as President of the American Psychological Association.

Dr. Zimbardo has acknowledged the contributions of Mr. Prescott in previous writings. In a 40th anniversary retrospective on the SPE, Dr. Zimbardo called Prescott "our prison consultant," and described some of his activities in the running of the experiment. Most recently, he cited his help in a section of his book, The Lucifer Effect:
It all began with the planning, execution, and analysis of the experiment we did at Stanford University back in August 1971. The immediate impetus for this research came out of an undergraduate class project on the psychology of imprisonment, headed by David Jaffe, who later became the warden in our Stanford Prison Experiment. In preparation for conducting this experiment, and to better understand the mentality of prisoners and correctional staff, as well as to explore what were the critical features in the psychological nature of any prison experience, I taught a summer school course at Stanford University covering these topics. My co-instructor was Andrew Carlo Prescott, who had recently been paroled from a series of long confinements in California prisons. Carlo came to serve as an invaluable consultant and dynamic head of our “Adult Authority Parole Board.”
Oddly, Dr. Zimbardo fails to note in his acknowledgements that the study was funded by a grant from the US Office of Naval Research. (The fact is mentioned at the SPE FAQ webpage.) In fact, the research was written up in a paper for Naval Research Reviews, September 1973 (PDF).

Dr. Zimbardo's association with the Navy has continued for decades, and he is currently professor in the Department of Homeland Security Program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.

Mr. Prescott's paper asserts that the cruel actions by the student prisoner role-playing guards was not in fact an outcome of situational dynamics, as Zimbardo maintains, but that the "guards" were in fact instructed what to do. This would make the experiment more about how the student "prisoners" reacted under conditions of abuse than about penal behavior in general. It is possible that Zimbardo's accounts of the experiment are not totally truthful, and that the reasons the Office of Naval Research sponsored this project is because they were interested mainly in the actions of prisoners under abusive conditions in prisons run by the military, or possibly how prisoners in a POW camp might react to an abusive environment. This indeed was the program of the military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape or SERE programs that were being organized in the military at this time, with greater and greater organization regarding them over the decades.

In any case, the Naval Research Reviews editorial introduction to the paper, which was co-authored along with Zimbardo by Prison Experiment assistants Craig Haney and Curtis Banks, says the following:
The research reported in this article is part of a larger project sponsored by the Office of Naval Research which is designed to develop a better understanding of the basic psychological mechanisms underlying human aggression.... The 'prison' environment was further manipulated to promote anonymity, depersonalization and dehumanization among the subjects. The study demonstrates how these variables combine to increase the incidence of aggressive behavior on the part of the 'guards' and submissive and docile conformity on the part of the 'prisoners.'
What follows is Mr. Prescott's version of what occurred:
The lie of the Stanford Prison Experiment
By Carlo Prescott on April 28, 2005 in News

I read recently in the entertainment industry trade journal Variety of Maverick Entertainment, the principle of whom is Madonna, that intends to produce a film based on the “infamous” Stanford Prison Experiment. I read this with considerable consternation.

According to the article, the project’s principal investigator and the film’s driving force, Prof. Philip Zimbardo this “landmark” experiment is a classical treatise on the “power of the situation” and a full-blown explanation of the evils of every prison from Folsom to Abu Ghraib. I can assure you, it is neither. I say this not because I am an African American ex-con who served 17 years in San Quentin for attempted murder or one who spoke before Congress on the issue of prison reform. I say it because I was the Stanford Prison Experiment’s chief consultant. I armed the Zimbardo, Craig Haney and Curt Banks with the ideas that enabled them to infuse this study with the verisimilitude that it hangs its hat on to this day. And shouldn’t.

Regrettably, the gulf between verisimilitude and real prison life is a huge leap of faith that still raises serious issues of validity from the get-go.

Nevertheless, 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 at the old “Spanish Jail” section of San Quentin and which I dutifully shared with the Stanford Prison Experiment braintrust months before the experiment started. To allege that all these carefully tested, psychologically solid, upper-middle-class Caucasian “guards” dreamed this up on their own is absurd.

How can Zimbardo and, by proxy, Maverick Entertainment 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 ground rules? At the time, I had hoped that I would help create a valid, intellectually honest indictment of the prison system.

In hindsight, I blew it. I became an unwitting accomplice to a theatrical exercise that conveniently absolves all comers of personal responsibility for their abominable moral choices. It seems that Maverick Entertainment, riding shotgun with Zimbardo, is repeating historical folly (and dramatic contrivance) of the worst kind. And do you honestly believe Hollywood will come anywhere close to honoring or doing right by the field of psychology in this exercise?

Carlo Prescott lives in Oakland. E-mail him at
Compare the article testimony above to what Dr. Zimbardo said in a 2004 essay, "A situationist perspective on the psychology of evil: Understanding how good people are transformed into perpetrators," in A. Miller (Ed.), The social psychology of good and evil (pp.21–50), Guilford Press (p. 39).
Participants [in the Stanford Prison Experiment] had no prior training in how to play the randomly assigned roles. Each subject’s prior societal learning of the meaning of prisons and the behavioural scripts associated with the oppositional roles of prisoner and guard was the sole source of guidance.
Or consider what Haney, Banks and Zimbardo stated in their Naval Research Reviews article: "Guard aggression... was emitted simply as a ‘natural’ consequence of being in the uniform of a ‘guard’ and asserting the power inherent in that role."

Certainly, a larger and more comprehensive, critical look is needed to determine what the facts are surrounding this "experiment," lauded in the press and social psychology literature as a landmark study on the nature of human beings under confinement. Its connection to US government studies on torture or imprisonment is another important aspect to any investigation.

Ending note for psychologists: the famous psychologist Erich Fromm critiqued the SPE and Zimbardo's conclusions, not knowing anything of Prescott's own criticisms, in his 1973 book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Excerpts of that critique can be read here.


rerevisionist said...

You may be interested in the idea that the famous Milgram experiment was phony, too----

And also the idea that 'brainwashing' was attributed to the nasty Chinese, to cover up US war crimes in Korea---

Anyway; just a couple of things.

Anonymous said...

Of course the person claiming the Milgram experiment is phony proceeds to also deny the moon landing, the holocaust and claims that 9/11 was an inside job.

Methinks there is a questionable source.

Valtin said...

Yes, anonymous, that source of criticism on Milgram seems biased, if not anti-Semitic. Thanks for pointing that out.

Anonymous said...

Zimbardo meantions several times in his book that the study is funded by office of naval research. Oddly if the author had actually done his homework he would know that this is an old argument that has been confronted and defunked in the past.

Cheryl TS said...

I absolutely agree with this article. Zimbardo instructed his prisoners, was involved in his "study," and brought in an ex-convict who gave inside information about his own experience in prison. In fact, Zimbardo abused this ex-prisoner and caused pain for all of these students. Ethics don't need to be dictated. A researcher, and certainly anyone that understands the scientific method, knows that he/she never gets involved with his subjects, doesn't lead them as to how to act, and stops if and when a situation unfolds in a way that is unexpectedly harmful. And ethics can be learned by taking an intro class in philosophy, which I presume Zimbardo did. A true scientist has to be very objective. This is not an experiment at all, but a plan of deceit, and I think all it proves is that a professor, obsessed with power, used his position, degree, and lots of funding to bring credibility to conclusions he had already made.

I could go on an on. I don't care what Zimbardo said in his book, but rather, I care about the damage he did to the participants and to social psychology. Challenging these "scientists" is mandatory. It was not and never will be a study, research, or an experiment to me. What this truly represents is a man who created an environment in which torture, humiliation, and powerlessness were sure to prevail. Also, wanting to please the researcher and get paid provided incentives for these roles to be played out.

By they way, I love Social Psychology, but this, I do not!

Anonymous said...

I heard about the SPE in College in the mid 70s. The interpretation presented was in line with Zim’s explanation of the environment causing the problems. After watching the Showtime film I was sickened by the experiment, how Zim became part of the evil and encouraged the guards to be abusive either directly, as a supporting player and just plain omission of professional oversight. The question of a control group was spot on. What sickens me most is this guy has made a career out of this absurdity. Maybe the participants could bring a “Bill Cosby” suit against the experiments backers and Zim’s team. The ethics investigation results seem plausible. If the Auschwitz guards invited the Dachau guards to check their ethics we would have had the same results. “Looks OK to me! Has anyone been able to independently follow up with the participants? No APA types, actual investigators a true outside investigation?

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