Dr. Zimbardo Says His Role in the Stanford Prison Experiment Was Like Being a Movie Director
The Stanford Prison Experiment is a study with a long history and one that has been firmly etched into the collective discourse on social psychology.
The latest film rendition of the experiment, in which test subjects randomly inhabit the roles of prisoners and inmates, premiered at Sundance '15 (where it won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize) and is now hitting theaters.
We got the opportunity to have Dr. Phillip Zimbardo, the lead researcher on the original study in 1971, weigh in on its portrayal in the new film by Kyle Patrick Alvarez. Here's the trailer for the film:
With the film, the audience gets to step back and observe the observers.
NFS: Are you a film buff? How do feel about the experiment being translated to film?
Dr. Zimbardo: I'm a huge movie buff, but I never have enough time to watch a lot of movies. It's a little bit like 12 Angry Men or a very old movie Lifeboat, where the audience gets captured in this claustrophobic tiny space, and that's what happened in the prison study. The whole thing took place in an area about 6 feet wide and 20 feet long with tiny prison cells. So the movie captures that sense of claustrophobia and it's brilliant editing by the director Kyle Patrick Alvarez. There are scenes that are so compressed that you just see a guard's face, pushing or screaming, so the movie is, for me, riveting, and it translates in a very direct way. Each time I see it I notice something different, something new — but it's also emotionally distressing. The big question is: will audiences come away saying "Oh my god, it was overwhelming emotionally" or will they say "Oh my god, it made me think about issues of power?"
I wrote a book called the Lucifer Effect and it has 10 chapters on the Prison experiment. So what do you get out of a movie that you don't get out of reading? [In the book] the audience is really looking in on a one-way screen at me and my research team, with the film the audience gets to step back and observe the observers. So in a unique way it captures the kind of voyeurism that some films engage in. So instead of just imagining the scene, you imagine "what kind of guard would I have been like?"
NFS: Do you feel that the data from the study was accurately represented in the film?
Dr. Zimbardo: It's a very tasteful rendition. I should mentioned that in order to use the word "Stanford," the Stanford legal council made the producers agree that everything in the film would stick to the basic facts of what happened. So they couldn't invent new dramatic scenes, and in fact the exact opposite happened. Condensing 6 days down into 2 hours, there were a lot of dramatic things that happened that they couldn't put in the movie — or they filmed it but had to delete it because the film would run too long.
NFS: It seems like being the lead of an experiment has interesting parallels to being a film director. You're setting up your subjects, with their chemistries and watching them explode.
Dr. Zimbardo: In a funny way you really hit on it, most people don't. I was the researcher but I was also the prison superintendent — and that was a mistake to get into that role. But before that I was the director of this scene. I arranged the costumes, the physical setting, the only thing is we didn't have an audience, but we did have the video. There was no script and the experiment was all about the improvisation of the prisoners and guards. So essentially I was the director of the pilot of the movie, and then I was the researcher and unfortunately the superintendent who got sucked into the situation.
NFS: What ways have you seen the data from the experiment being used over the years that has surprised you?
Dr. Zimbardo: Shortly after the study I was contacted by clinical psychologists working in a state mental hospital in Elgin, Ohio saying there had been many abuses by psychologists of the patients. I consulted with them and they did a mock prison weekend in which the staff played inmates and staff — so half of the clinical staff played inmates. They did it for a weekend in part of the old hospital, and what happened was an exact replication of the Prison study. They started abusing the patients and putting them in straight jackets, cursing and screaming. So the consequence was that they became aware of how they were abusing their power. Since then they have a monthly meeting of staff, patients, and former patients to talk about how to keep the institution humane and compassionate and avoid the excesses that are possible in any kind of closed institution where nobody is looking in from the outside. That's been one of the most important direct extensions of the studies for good.
Essentially I was the director of the pilot of the movie, and then I was the researcher and unfortunately the superintendent who got sucked into the situation.
NFS: What are your thoughts on the human rights of test subjects in relation to the learnings that we could potentially gain about the human psyche?
Dr. Zimbardo: You're hitting on one of the basic questions that this raises on the ethics of behavioral research. Clearly people suffered more in this experiment than they expected to. There was in fact a committee that we submitted this to, but neither the students or me or my staff could've imagined how severe it would've been. So there was informed consent, but now we know that in those settings it could get out of hand and people really suffered.
The problem now is that all human subject committees at universities and other institutions have gotten extremely concerned with it and don't allow any of this kind of research. When what they could do is give a provisional acceptance — "We'll let you do it for an hour, a day, we'll look at the videos and then decide to let you go on." But it's all shut down. So in one way it makes the prison study more famous because it's in an ethical time capsule and it can never be done again. So in addition to its own merit it becomes a curiosity piece. But see, for me it means there are so many questions now that will never be answered. What would happen if somebody trained different groups of guards to be more compassionate? What would happen if you had all women? All minorities? So there's interesting questions about human nature that have important implications that can never be answered because you can't do this research.
NFS: What was your level of involvement and contribution to this film?
Dr. Zimbardo: I was a film consultant throughout and I worked a little with Tim Talbott, the screenwriter. I was sending him the chapters I was writing for The Lucifer Effect on the prison guard dialogue. I went back and forth with Kyle Alvarez, and in some places I would say "This is psychologically wrong" and they would eliminate it from the script. I was on set for a couple of days and talking to the principles, Billy Crudup who did a fantastic job of being an attractive me, and Olivia Thirlby who plays the lead female researcher.
NFS: If you could go back what would you change about the experiment?
Dr. Zimbardo: If I could go back I would not play the prison superintendent. I would have somebody else do that because then I could've been more objective. I probably would have ended the study at the end of the second day. When the second prisoner broke down, we proved our point and didn't need to keep going. The problem was in my mind we had said it might go 2 weeks, so I'm thinking how am I going to end after 2 days? It would be like a failure versus being a success. So I would have someone else play that role, or have an ombudsman watching and telling us when to shut down the show, saying when it becomes too distressing or too overwhelming.
The Stanford Prison Experiment is playing in select theaters now.