The Stanford Prison ‘Experiment’ is not so much an actual scientific experiment as it is a great piece of fiction, a piece of improvisational drama created by a budding psychologist at the time, Philip Zimbardo.

So please, let’s stop calling it an “experiment” and let’s stop teaching it in psychology classes. It’s astounding how many people still believe the experiment to be a credible piece of research based on an objective set of hypotheses and scientific methodologies.

As we’ve learned over the past decade, as more evidence has become available — and after another set of researchers failed to replicate the original experiment — there’s little doubt that the original study has little of scientific value to teach us. Other than how to tell a good story, one that others really want to believe.

Philip Zimbardo is the Stanford psychologist who ran the study in 1971 and published his findings in Naval Research Reviews (1973) due to partial funding by the Office of Naval Research. He later published his findings to a far broader, national audience in that pantheon of scientific discovery, The New York Times Magazine (Zimbardo et al., 1973). It propelled Zimbardo into becoming one of the most recognizable national names in psychology — a pedigree he has arguably been trading on throughout most of his career.

Ben Blum, over at Medium, has written an in-depth critique of the Stanford Prison Experiment, describing all of the ways it failed on the basis of simple, basic science. Arguably, the “experiment” also failed to tell us anything generalizable about the human condition.

If you’ll recall, the Stanford Prison Experiment randomly assigned a set of 24 white, male college students to one of two groups, prisoners or guards, in a made-up “prison” in the basement of one of the university’s academic buildings. The experiment was designed to last two weeks. But after just five days, the experiment was called off after the guards starting behaving very cruelly toward the “prisoners.” The prisoners, in turn, also became very depressed and submissive. Here’s the traditional narrative of the experiment, according to Wikipedia, which is still regularly taught as “fact” in university psychology classes around the world:

Some participants developed their roles as the officers and enforced authoritarian measures and ultimately subjected some prisoners to psychological torture. Many of the prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse and, by the officers’ request, actively harassed other prisoners who tried to stop it. Zimbardo, in his role as the superintendent, allowed abuse to continue. Two of the prisoners left mid-experiment, and the whole exercise was abandoned after six days following the objections of graduate student Christina Maslach, whom Zimbardo was dating (and later married).

The supposed “finding” of this research was that certain negative situations can bring out the worst in people. If the situation has some sort of pre-defined expectations — you know, like a prison setting — then people will simply adopt the roles they’ve seen played out in countless movies and shows.

Zimbardo suggested at the time and in many interviews that followed that the “guards” had made up their own rules for the prisoners, and had no prodding or reinforcement to act in an aggressive manner toward the prisoners. Yet details have emerged in the interceding years demonstrating quite the opposite:

In 2005, Carlo Prescott, the San Quentin parolee who consulted on the experiment’s design, published an Op-Ed in The Stanford Daily entitled “The Lie of the Stanford Prison Experiment,” revealing that many of the guards’ techniques for tormenting prisoners had been taken from his own experience at San Quentin rather than having been invented by the participants.

In another blow to the experiment’s scientific credibility, Haslam and Reicher’s attempted replication in 2001, in which guards received no coaching and prisoners were free to quit at any time, failed to reproduce Zimbardo’s findings. Far from breaking down under escalating abuse, prisoners banded together and won extra privileges from guards, who became increasingly passive and cowed. According to Reicher, Zimbardo did not take it well when they attempted to publish their findings in the British Journal of Social Psychology (Reicher & Haslam, 2006).

In short, the experiment was a bust when you actually ran it the way Zimbardo claimed it was run the first time. If you actually don’t tell the guards how to act or what rules to create, it turns out that maybe human nature isn’t so bad after all. (Zimbardo’s lengthy and long-winded response to this criticism is an interesting but ultimately self-serving read.)

Research Subjects’ Rights

If we learned anything from this experiment, it was the importance of human subject ethics and rights — which were strengthened after this experiment came to light. “Prisoners” in the study asked to leave it, but were not allowed. Zimbardo claimed in an interview with Blum that they need to say an exact phrase in order to quit the study, but this phrase was not found in any of the consent materials the subjects agreed to and signed.

For Korpi, the most frightening thing about the experiment was being told that, regardless of his desire to quit, he truly did not have the power to leave.

“I was entirely shocked,” he said. “I mean, it was one thing to pick me up in a cop car and put me in a smock. But they’re really escalating the game by saying that I can’t leave. They’re stepping to a new level. I was just like, ‘Oh my God.’ That was my feeling.”

Another prisoner, Richard Yacco, recalled being stunned on the experiment’s second day after asking a staff-member how to quit and learning that he couldn’t. A third prisoner, Clay Ramsay, was so dismayed on discovering that he was trapped that he started a hunger strike. “I regarded it as a real prison because [in order to get out], you had to do something that made them worry about their liability,” Ramsay told me.

Because of the way the Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted and other research studies that also seemingly abused people’s rights, subjects’ rights when participating in scientific studies were strengthened in the 1970s. So chalk that up to a win for the study — it demonstrated the flaws and weak rights research subjects had when agreeing to participate in a research study.

What Does This Teach Us?

First, let’s stop calling it the “Stanford Prison Experiment.” It was not a scientific experiment in any typical sense of the term, as the researchers involved did not stick to their own methodology and apparently whitewashed the details of their meager data. If anything, it should be called the Stanford Prison Play, a fictional drama scripted by Zimbardo and David Jaffe, the undergraduate who served as “Warden.” (“Jaffe was given extraordinary leeway in shaping the Stanford prison experiment in order to replicate his previous results,” according to Blum.) It simply demonstrated that if you tell a set of white males to act mean toward another set of white males, they tend to follow directions (because, maybe, they want to get paid?).

It also quite clearly demonstrated what piss-poor research passed for “science” in psychology back in the 1970s. So much so that the American Psychological Association — the professional arm that represents psychologists in the United States — elected Zimbardo as their president in 2001.

And it spoke to a component of the human condition that made people feel better about themselves, as Blum suggests:

The appeal of the Stanford prison experiment seems to go deeper than its scientific validity, perhaps because it tells us a story about ourselves that we desperately want to believe: that we, as individuals, cannot really be held accountable for the sometimes reprehensible things we do.

As troubling as it might seem to accept Zimbardo’s fallen vision of human nature, it is also profoundly liberating. It means we’re off the hook. Our actions are determined by circumstance. Our fallibility is situational. Just as the Gospel promised to absolve us of our sins if we would only believe, the SPE offered a form of redemption tailor-made for a scientific era, and we embraced it.

If you’re a psychology teacher or professor and are still teaching the Stanford Prison Experiment as an actual scientific study, it’s time to stop.

You can certainly talk about it in terms of its questionable ethical stance toward subjects, its apparent manipulation of subjects in order to gain the results it wanted, and how it helped promote one psychologist’s career.

You could examine why a single study that was never successfully replicated on 24 young, white, male college students somehow was relevant to helping define prison policy for years to come (in terms of a representative sample, this study had very little connection to what was happening in real prisons).

And you could certainly talk about how terribly bad the psychology profession is in policing its own researchers to ferret out bad studies like this before they ever see the light of day. ((And not only has psychology failed to call out this bad science years ago, it actually elected the primary researcher to the presidency of its professional organization — partially on the basis of his reputation in designing and running the SPE.))

But as science? Sorry, no, it’s not anything close to resembling science.

Instead it serves as a dark reminder that science is often far less cut-and-dry than it’s taught in textbooks and psychology classes. The science can be far more dirty and biased than any of us ever imagined.

For further information:

Blum’s article on Medium: The Lifespan of a Lie

Vox’s commentary: Stanford Prison Experiment: why famous psychology studies are now being torn apart

Zimbardo’s response to Blum’s article

Vox’s followup to Zimbardo’s response: Philip Zimbardo defends the Stanford Prison Experiment, his most famous work