The Myth of the Stanford Prison Experiment

AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

The story goes that on August 16, 1971, a 22-year-old prisoner named Douglas Korpi started freaking out, demanding guards let him leave the Stanford Prison Experiment. Guards denied his request. But it didn’t really happen that way.

For Medium, Ben Blum interviews participants and examines documents to tell the truth about the world’s most famous psychological study, and explains why such revelations won’t keep the experiment from influencing popular thinking about human behavior. Philip Zimbardo, the Stanford psychology professor who put the experiment together, misrepresented details and settled on a set public narrative that conflicted with the facts. He groomed the fake prison guards to act “tough,” copied another experiment and manipulated results. Why does this matter? Because, as Blum puts it, the experiment made Zimbardo “the most prominent living American psychologist,” and the experiment achieved lasting “canonical status in intro psych classes around the country.” The SPE was an experiment alright, but not necessarily scientific. Just as Douglas Korpi was acting, so was a guard named Dave Eshelman. He actually trained as an actor and faked his Southern accent.

“As I was walking down the hall,” Eshelman recalled, “he made it a point to come and let me know what a great job I’d done. I actually felt like I had accomplished something good because I had contributed in some way to the understanding of human nature.”

According to Alex Haslam and Stephen Reicher, psychologists who co-directed an attempted replication of the Stanford prison experiment in Great Britain in 2001, a critical factor in making people commit atrocities is a leader assuring them that they are acting in the service of a higher moral cause with which they identify — for instance, scientific progress or prison reform. We have been taught that guards abused prisoners in the Stanford prison experiment because of the power of their roles, but Haslam and Reicher argue that their behavior arose instead from their identification with the experimenters, which Jaffe and Zimbardo encouraged at every turn. Eshelman, who described himself on an intake questionnaire as a “scientist at heart,” may have identified more powerfully than anyone, but Jaffe himself put it well in his self-evaluation: “I am startled by the ease with which I could turn off my sensitivity and concern for others for ‘a good cause.’”

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