1971: Philip Zimbardo, Stanford Prison Experiment — precursor for Abu Ghraib torture.

Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) conducted by Philip Zimbardo, Ph.D, a psychologist simulated a prison constructed in a basement at Stanford University. The 24 male subjects were screened normal Stanford undergraduates who were paid $15 a day for an experiment that was to last two weeks. They were randomly assigned to be either “guards” or “prisoners.”The prisoners were picked up unexpectedly at their homes by real Palo Alto police officers. They were roughly hustled to the “prison” where they were stripped, deloused, and put into rough muslin smocks with no underwear and one ankle chained.

Zimbardo claimed that the students assigned to be guards soon began spontaneously abusing the prisoners both psychologically and physically. “Within a day or two, they were marching prisoners to and from the bathroom in paper bag hoods, keeping them naked, stepping on their backs while they did push-ups, and sexually humiliated them.”  The experiment ended when Zimbardo’s girlfriend, Christina Maslach, came to look and expressed her horror at the abuse.  Although Zimbardo has acknowledged that the experiment was unethical, he has built his career on this sensationalized experiment which he first reported publicly in The New York Times Magazine in 1973. Zimbardo’s thesis – which the experiment was designed to prove – is that good, ordinary college students became sadistic tormentors, simply because they were given permission, the means, and the opportunity of doing so. The Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), and its well-publicized result, became a fixture in the popular conception of psychology despite a body of serious criticism. Zimbaro was elected President of the American Psychological Association in 2002.

Over the years a chorus of serious criticism has grown raising questions about conceptual flaws; subject selection bias; flawed methodology that tainted the participants’ behavior; preconceived manipulated results; any results were rendered meaningless by insufficient small sample size inadequate for statistically useful results. And Zimbardo’s active participation in the experiment as the prison superintendent put himself in the position of ultimate active authority over the guards’ behavior calls this into question. Many designers of such experiments would summarily throw out such a study. (Brian Dunning, 2008)

The noted psychologist, Erich Fromm, was an early critic of the experiment. In The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973) h challenged Zimbaro’s thesis, validity of such experiments, and the study’s conclusion that the prison situation itself determines an individual’s behavior. Fromm cited historical studies that examined the behavior of inmates in Nazi concentration camps.

“the data from concentration camps tend to disprove [ ] Zimbardo’s main thesis, which postulates that individual values, ethics, convictions do not make any difference as far as the compelling influence of the environment is concerned. On the contrary, differences in the attitude, respectively, of apolitical, middle-class prisoners (mostly Jews) and prisoners with a genuine political conviction or religious conviction or both demonstrate that the values and convictions of prisoners do make a critical difference in the reaction to conditions of the concentration camp that are common to all of them.”

“The failure of the authors to check their conclusions with a realistic situation is particularly regrettable since there is ample material at hand dealing with a prison situation far more brutal than that of the worst American prisons—Hitler’s Concentration camps.”

Fromm challenged the validity of the screening test used to ascertain an individual’s underlying sadism, noting that:

“If in psychological experiments the “subjects” were clearly aware that the whole situation is only a game, everything would be simple. But in many experiments, as in that of Milgram, they are misinformed and lied to; as for the prison experiment it was set up in such a way that the awareness that everything was only an experiment would be minimized or lost. The very fact that many of these experiments, is order to be undertaken at all, must operate with fakery demonstrates this peculiar unreality; the participants’ sense of reality is confused and their critical judgment greatly reduced.”

“the difference between the mock prisoners and real prisoners is so great that it is virtually impossible to draw analogies from observation of the former. For a prisoner who has been sent to prison for a certain action, the situation is very real; he knows the reasons. In “real life” the person knows that his behavior will have consequences. In addition, the role of the experimenter must be considered in laboratory experiments of this type. He presides over a fictitious reality constructed and controlled by him. In a certain sense he represents reality for the subject and for this reason his influence is a hypnoid one akin to that of a hypnotist toward his subject. The experimenter relieves the subject, to some extent, of his responsibility and of his own will, and hence makes him much more prone to obey the rules than the subject would be in a nonhypnoid situation. ” (Fromm. excerpt from The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, 1973

Fromm pointed out that the uniforms worn by the “prisoners” were inconsistent for American prisons. The ill-fitting uniforms made the prisoners feel awkward in their movements; since, these dresses were worn without undergarments, the uniform forced them to assume unfamiliar postures, more like those of a woman than a man—another part of the emasculating process of becoming a prisoner.  In 2004, when the Abu Ghraib torture photographs were shown, the similarity in details to the Stanford prisoner uniforms — as well as bags being put over the heads of prisoners — was strikingly apparent.

The experiment has been criticized for subject selection bias; flawed methodology that tainted the participants’ behavior; preconceived manipulated results; rendering such results meaningless by insufficient small sample size inadequate for statistically useful results. And Zimbardo’s active participation in the experiment as the prison superintendent put him in the position of ultimate active authority over the guards’ behavior calls this into question. Many designers of such experiments would summarily throw out such a study. (Brian Dunning, 2008)

Peter Gray, Ph.D., the author of Psychology a textbook has focused on methodological problems; he criticized Zimbaro’s experiment as poorly conceived and improperly interpreted. Much research has shown that participants in psychological experiments are highly motivated to do what they believe the researchers expect them to do – “demand characteristics”. In any valid experiment it is essential to eliminate or at least minimize demand characteristics. In this experiment, Zimbardo’s expectations (demands) were everywhere in evidence. Zimbardo provided a blueprint detailing what the guards are expected to do. (Peter Gray. Why Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment Isn’t in My Textbook, Psychology Today, Oct. 19, 2013)

Zimbardo and his colleagues had consulted with Carlo Prescott, an African American who had served 17 years in San Quentin for attempted murder and who had spoken before Congress on issues of prison reform. Zimbardo acknowledged the contributions of Mr. Prescott in writing as “our prison consultant.” In his book, The Lucifer Effect, he referred to Prescott as “my co-instructor…an invaluable consultant and dynamic head of our “Adult Authority Parole Board.”

However, after reading about the various ways the experiment was being used by Zimbardo and others to explain real prison atrocities, Prescott wrote a devastating Op Ed article for the Stanford Daily entitled “The Lie of the Stanford Prison Experiment” (reprinted here). Prescott expressed great regret for his involvement in the experiment and stated that it was he, not the guards in the mock prison, who came up with the ways of psychologically humiliating and harassing the prisoners.

“…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 … 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.”

If so, then the experiment was not about situation dynamics under prison conditions, nor spontaneous acts of abuse of prisoners, but rather about the mental reaction of students playing prisoner under extreme psychological abuse bordering on torture.

Portions of the Stanford Prison Experiment Video taped: http://www.personalgrowthcourses.net/video/stanford_prison_experiment