Watching ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’ In The Era Of Mass Incarceration


The Stanford Prison Experiment started on August 17, 1971. It was the brainchild of Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who sought to study the psychological effects of prison life. From a pool of 70, he selected 24 young men — nine guards, nine prisoners, three alternates for each group — all of whom had responded to an ad in a local newspaper and agreed to participate in exchange for a $15 a day stipend. Subjects were divided into two groups, prisoners and guards, by coin flips.

They embarked on what was supposed to be a two-week endeavor. But within days, the guards inflicted so much physical and psychological abuse on the the prisoners, Zimbardo, urged on by his girlfriend at the time, pulled the plug on the experiment after only six days.

Forty-four years after the abrupt conclusion of what remains one of the most controversial, can’t-look-away-from-it studies in the history of psychology, Zimbardo’s iconic work is getting the Hollywood treatment. Director Kyle Alvarez’s film, The Stanford Prison Experiment, premieres July 17.

The movie hews closely to the true events: Nine prisoners were “arrested” from their homes, in full view of their neighbors, for armed robbery and burglary. After being taken to a police station in Palo Alto (prisoners rode in the back of the cop car, sirens blaring) where they were booked, fingerprinted, placed in a holding cell, and blindfolded, prisoners were taken to the basement of the psychology department at Stanford, where a hallway stood in for the fictional Stanford County Prison.


Once there, prisoners were deloused, stripped, and searched in, as Zimbardo wrote, “a procedure designed in part to humiliate him.” While in the jail, they wore gowns with no underwear — “Real male prisoners don’t wear dresses; but real male prisoners, we have learned, do feel humiliated, do feel emasculated, and we thought we could produce the same effects very quickly by putting men in a dress without any underclothes” — and stocking caps to approximate the feeling and look of a shaved head. A heavy chain was bolted to each prisoner’s right ankle “in order that the prisoner always would be aware of the oppressive­ness of his environment.” Names were abandoned and ID numbers were assigned. Guards wore khaki uniforms and mirrored aviators, an idea Zimbardo swiped from Cool Hand Luke.

You will probably not enjoy The Stanford Prison Experiment. It is two solid hours of nightmare fodder, a disturbing but gripping portrayal of something it is hard to believe could really happen in, of all places, a university setting. But you won’t be able to stop thinking about it, either.


The conclusions one could draw from the study’s almost immediate combustion are stunning and horrifying: Anyone, in the right circumstances, could turn monstrous overnight; that less than a week in even a fake jail could undo all the social, emotional and intellectual training that came before it. Yet that neat take-home misses the fact that the prison was constructed specifically to be brutal; it was not a neutral space. And in light of national debates on mass incarceration and abuse within the prison system, the outcome of the Stanford Prison Experiment seems to reveal something else: That we are responsible for constructing prisons in a very particular way. As Maria Konnikova wrote in The New Yorker, “The lesson of Stanford isn’t that any random human being is capable of descending into sadism and tyranny. It’s that certain institutions and environments demand those behaviors — and, perhaps, can change them.”

Alavrez and Zimbardo spoke with ThinkProgress by phone to talk about the experiment, the process of dramatizing the study (Zimbardo was a consultant on the film), and why they hope the movie is shown in real prisons across America.

TP: Kyle, what drew you to the real Stanford Prison Experiment? What did you see in it that made you think there was a movie to be made here?KA: The script had been volleyed around L.A. and had never gotten made, as many great projects don’t. When I read the script, I’d been familiar with the experiment, but I’d never taken psychology classes. I knew about it on a surface level: That it happened, it was in the ’70s. I didn’t realize how contained it was. I just thought: This is an incredible story, surely they embellished a lot of it. Reading the materials and watching the documentary, I realized, a lot of this is so true. Most of it is. So I thought, this is a rare opportunity to make a film that is cinematic and dramatic, and to bring a new angle onto it: A more emotional, ground-level sort of performance based film around it.


DZ: One of the reasons I’m happy the movie is made is because I had given up. I had assumed it would never happen, I would die before it appeared. In over 35 years, there have been four or five scripts.

TP: I’m surprised to hear that you were so eager to see this made into a movie, to be honest, and that you’re so thrilled with the result. Because the character of you in here, it’s not like you’re this heroic figure at all. It’s a pretty dark portrayal of you and of your work. Were you at all apprehensive about that depiction? Why was it so important to you that this experiment be dramatized as a film?

I feel guilty about allowing the suffering to go on as long as it did. And that’s reinforced in the movie. Seeing the brutality again, up close and very, very personal, I’m saying to myself: Why did you not end that sooner?

DZ: A central theme in my professional life has always been how to give psychology a way to the general public. A lot of psychologists do very interesting things — as interesting as the prison study, though maybe not as dramatic — and they want to improve the human condition. But mostly, we talk to each other. I’ve always had the focus of: How do we translate psychological findings and research so that my mother, who is an uneducated person, could appreciate it? My mother has always been my audience.

Between psychology and the public is the media. Psychologists have to learn: How do you translate? What language do you use to get the media interested in what you’re doing? So this has always been a focus. When it was clear that this research had a life of its own, that it really involved character situations and said something about systems, I saw that having a movie about it would be a wonderful way for the public to appreciate this kind of psychological research, which is in a time capsule and can never be done again.

TP: This is a very claustrophobic movie. With extremely limited exception, we never leave the prison: Everything just happens in this hallway, where everything is sort of beige and constrained. Was that decision to not show any of these characters’ lives before or after the experiment an artistic choice? Was it just driven by having a limited budget?KA: Some of that had been done, initially, via the script. But that’s part of what drew me into it. There’s an objective quality about the film that exists in the nature of an experiment. You’re observing it. You’re watching it happen. And the only reason you would show, in terms of the kids, their whole life, would be to create sympathy. It’s like the old screenwriting trick of the “save the cat,” where you see the person save a cat in the first scene so you like them. For me, I felt like, this isn’t a movie about creating sympathy. This is a movie, not about being cynical, but laying it out: This happened. Not, this happened and it was ethical or unethical. I wasn’t really interested in, for lack of a better phrase, the ethics of the science or the politics of it, because all the other material exists to discuss that. What the film can do is get in there on an emotional level.


The only person who gets any backstory in the film is Philip’s character, because his girlfriend was such an important part of why the experiment ended. You need the setup so you know who she is. But I was trying to take this clinical approach: Laying out the facts, putting out what happened, so it’s an experiential film. You’re coming into this as these people are. These guys didn’t know each other before, and we don’t know them. We only know them by the actions that they take.

TP: Dr. Zimbardo, how has your perspective on the experiment itself changed over time? How do you feel when you’re watching this movie?

In a sense, I’d always thought of myself as a movie director: I created the study with costumes and a cast. The only difference is, I didn’t give anybody lines.

DZ: It’s hard to watch. It’s very strange. It’s strange to watch somebody say, “Hey, Dr. Zimbardo,” and Billy Crudup answers. But I’m so pleased at the faithfulness of the rendition. And in a sense, I’d always thought of myself as a movie director: I created the study with costumes and a cast. The only difference is, I didn’t give anybody lines. The study was really about how the prison guards improvised their lines.

I feel guilty about allowing the suffering to go on as long as it did. And that’s reinforced in the movie. Seeing the brutality again, up close and very, very personal, I’m saying to myself: Why did you not end that sooner? Why did you not have an ombudsman tapping on your shoulder saying, “Time out, you’ve lost your focus, get back to the research and not to the prison”?

KA: I admire Dr. Zimbardo’s willingness not only to let the film happen but to be here to support the film, because it does show the humility it takes to say: this movie is only showing six days of my life, but that says a lot since those six days were very challenging and controversial.

TP: As both of you have said, it took decades for this movie to be made. So it’s not by design but by chance that the film is coming out this year, at a time at which we’re having these national conversations about mass incarceration, conditions of our prisons, conduct of police officers, and the criminal justice system at large. How do you think the experiment and this movie speak to this moment in our history?DZ: Obviously, both of us hope this movie will awaken the public’s concern about mass incarceration. Two million Americans are in prison, and we, the taxpayers, are paying billions of dollars to keep people in prison who don’t belong there: people who should have been in mental hospitals, people who are addicts. And the questions of, should guards be trained to have a better understanding of human nature and their jobs? Should police officers be trained to understand the inherent power in their role and how to contain it?

We would like the movie to be shown in prisons. Last night, we showed the movie in a halfway house and the audience were a bunch of ex-convicts who’d been in prison 20 to 20 years. And none of them said, “It was nothing like our real prison.” Some of them had to walk out. They said it was too overwhelming to watch.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.