The Real Life Prison Experiment

Psychologist Phil Zimbardo explains how mild-mannered people become thugs.

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In late October 2004, when a military court sentenced Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick to eight years in prison, busted him to private, stripped him of pay, and handed him a dishonorable discharge for his involvement in the Abu Ghraib fiasco, Stanford University psychologist Phil Zimbardo reacted with anger and frustration. It wasn’t as though Frederick, who goes by “Chip,” hadn’t done horrible things. The 38-year-old had admitted to his role in the very incident that came to symbolize the scandal—Frederick had been the one who’d affixed wires to a hooded prisoner and told the man he’d be electrocuted if he stepped down from atop the flimsy box on which he stood. The soldier also admitted he’d sucker-punched another man, forced prisoners to masturbate publicly, and made detainees pile, naked, one atop the other. To avoid a lengthier sentence, Frederick agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, and pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty, assault, conspiracy, maltreatment of detainees, and committing indecent acts.

Despite all of this, Zimbardo felt Frederick’s sentence was too harsh. The professor emeritus is an expert in the “situational” dynamics that can lead otherwise decent people to do wrong, or stand by while others do wrong. As such, Frederick’s defense team had hired him as an expert witness, but the psychologist’s arguments for leniency went unheeded by judge and prosecutor. “Theirs was the standard individualism conception that is shared by most people in our culture,” the professor writes in the preface of his recent book, The Lucifer Effect. “It is the idea that the fault was entirely ‘dispositional,’ the consequence of Sergeant Chip Frederick’s freely chosen rational decision to engage in evil.”

The Lucifer Effect describes at length Zimbardo’s now-infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, designed to measure the degree to which situational dynamics affect people’s behavior. Paid student volunteers were split into two groups and asked to assume the roles of inmates and guards in a mock prison the research team had constructed in the basement of the campus psych building. Although they knew it was just an experiment, these long-haired hippie kids (they were “against authority,” Zimbardo notes; “nobody wanted to be a guard”) were subsumed by their roles within 48 hours. The “guards” began heaping psychological abuses on their charges (as superintendent, Zimbardo limited physical cruelty), whereas the “prisoners,” who could simply have quit, remained to do the guards’ bidding. “A guard could say [to a prisoner], ‘Spit in his face, tell him he’s a prick, tell him he’s a bastard’—they would punish their fellow prisoner, no question about it,” Zimbardo told me. “Each day the level of psychological aggression escalated significantly on all of our measures until the prisoners started having emotional breakdowns.”

Things got so out of control that Zimbardo halted the two-week experiment in just five days. “It’s hard to believe,” he says, “that psychologically what started out as an experiment, where everybody knew it was a psychology experiment in a mock prison, in several days became a prison.”

The same dynamic, he believes, is at play on Solitary, a reality TV show in which contestants are placed in isolation pods for up to 12 days and run through a series of arduous “treatments” by an all-seeing computer-voiced host. (Although Zimbardo hasn’t watched the show, I described to him the overall concept and some of what contestants endure.) “It starts off as a game,” Zimbardo says. But “especially if you’re talking about 12 days that they’re living this thing, you lose your usual reality basis. You lose whatever ethical stance you had, whatever sense of morality you had. That’s remote, and now it’s a new sense of norms that control behavior in that situation. When they get into that mode, there are no limits to what you could get those people to do. Absolutely none.”

Lincoln Hiatt, cocreator of the show along with Andrew Golder, didn’t put it quite that way, but he did profess a similar sentiment. “One of the reasons it really works, and one of my particular fascinations, is that we’ve managed to achieve a kind of suspension of disbelief,” he said. “Nobody believes this place existed someplace in the world and we just happened to drop in on it with our cameras. We created this place. But within that wholesale creation, as soon as the contestants are in the world and as soon as the audience is in the world, because we’re very consistent with it, nobody questions it anymore.”

Of course, Hiatt considers that good television, whereas the professor considers it a “debasement of human nature.” Several years ago, Zimbardo says, he was working as a consultant for NBC, and the network producers wanted to do a show that explored the degree to which people would humiliate themselves in order to get on TV. The casting call was ostensibly a competition to be on a subsequent reality program, he recalls. In fact, the audition was the reality program. “The producers started coming up with, ‘Let’s try this, let’s try that,’ and they began to do these, and they were relatively mild compared to [Solitary],” Zimbardo says. “And I quit. I said, ‘This is a disgrace.’ It became clear people would do anything, literally anything—have sex, disgrace themselves.”

The psychologist also takes issue with Hiatt and Golder’s contention that their contestants must want to be subjected to the rigors of Solitary since they are free to leave the show at any time, but don’t. His “prisoners,” after all, were free to leave, too. The human brain, Zimbardo points out, is a rationalizing organ. “At any point you have to justify why you did this much,” he says. “And once you do that, the next day is only slightly more horrendous, but it’s horrendous nevertheless. I’m saying you lose your moral compass in those situations.”


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