As classes gave way to summer vacation on the Stanford campus of 1971, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo convened 24 paid volunteers in an empty building for a two-week study of prison dynamics. Randomly dividing his all-male participants into prisoners and guards with coin flips, Dr. Zimbardo set in motion a role-playing exercise that almost immediately veered out of control.
My casual understanding of the Stanford prison experiment, prior to seeing LA indie filmmaker Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s claustrophobic and disturbing The Stanford Prison Experiment (which opened yesterday in the Bay Area), was that ordinary young men had seized an opportunity to inflict pain on other ordinary young men, abusing their authority and overstepping rational boundaries.
One could extrapolate these results beyond prisons to attempt to understand the incomprehensible -- the aggregate efforts of thousands of ordinary Germans in the discrimination, deportation and murder of millions of European Jews, homosexuals and Romani.
Dr. Zimbardo didn’t get around to finishing and publishing a book about his experiment, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, until 2007. But the subtitle explicitly references the question asked about Germany since 1945. (Of course, there’s no single, comfortable answer.)
But Dr. Zimbardo wasn’t thinking about the Nazis. In fact, the impetus for The Lucifer Effect, he noted in an interview this week at a Nob Hill hotel, was his preparation to be an expert witness on behalf of Sgt. “Chip” Frederick in a 2004 court martial. The defendant was a guard in a prison commonly referred to as Abu Ghraib.
“In that role, I got to know everything about that prison,” Dr. Zimbardo recalls. “I read all the reports. The parallels with the Stanford prison study were remarkable, at every level. And I had not even thought about [the study] for 20, 30 years. I had to go back and revisit it.”
Watching the original videotapes of his experiment, Dr. Zimbardo was reinvigorated by the realization that what he calls “this little study” from many years earlier had relevance in a wide range of situations.
“We’re talking about how people are changed by the position,” he explains. “You give somebody power in a setting where that power is validated, and you become the thing. You become a policemen, you become a father, you become the superintendent of prisons, whatever.”
The Stanford prison experiment has become part of the lexicon (even if it’s occasionally misapplied or misunderstood) precisely because almost everyone has experienced a moment -- as a camp counselor, or babysitter, or older sibling -- when power went to our head. No wonder Alvarez reacts so vociferously when asked why The Stanford Prison Experiment is coming out now.
“To me, the real question is when wouldn’t there be a ‘why now’?” he declares. “We didn’t know the week the movie was released that the President was going to go visit a prison. We didn’t know that police brutality was going to be in conversations. There’s almost any given moment that's appropriate to put [this] movie out there.”
It’s a little disconcerting to talk about the dark side of human nature in the lobby of an upscale hotel while relaxing tourists ponder their dinner plans. The conversation turns to the hypothetical results of a contemporary Stanford study, with young men raised on video games and the internet (and with a presumed decline in empathy and social skills).
Dr. Zimbardo reminds us that his 1971 study took place near the height of the counterculture, when independence and rebellion were cherished values. And yet the behavior of the guards compelled him to intercede before the planned two-week experiment ran its course. I submit that last tidbit as enticement to see The Stanford Prison Experiment, though I should add a caveat.
I’ve emphasized the ramifications of the guards’ behavior from a social and political perspective, yet the movie focuses more on the demoralizing, destructive effect of that behavior on the prisoners. Alvarez explains his slant by noting that it’s more difficult for a film to depict the evolving, unarticulated thought process of a guard than the external breakdown of a prisoner.
So bring all your big-picture reference points, but keep in mind Alvarez’s mantra throughout the development of The Stanford Prison Experiment: “No matter what, this is a movie about a bunch of young guys trapped in a hallway.”