• Weird History

All The Controversies And Issues Surrounding The Stanford Prison Experiment

In August 1971, Philip Zimbardo began an experiment that became famous in psychology textbooks for its discoveries, as well as the damaging evidence that later brought the study's legitimacy into question. The Stanford prison experiment consisted of around 20 student volunteers acting as guards and prisoners in a “prison” located in the basement of Stanford University’s psychology department. Although Zimbardo scheduled the experiment to last for two weeks, he was forced to end it after only six days due to unethical testing conditions.

Zimbardo, as well as many psychologists and criminologists, believed the experiment was a success. Many claimed it proved a person’s situation affects their behavior as much as their personality, sometimes with even greater influence. It was interpreted as evidence that individuals aren’t responsible for their actions, but rather that the environment, people, and activity around them cause negative behaviors. Ever since Zimbardo published his celebrated study, however, others have claimed the famous psychology experiment may have suffered several biases that would deem it scientifically inaccurate.

  • One Prisoner Later Claimed He Faked His Pivotal Mental Breakdown

    Photo: The Stanford Prison Experiment / IFC Films

    When prisoner Douglas Korpi learned he couldn't leave the experiment, the news came as a shock. "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," he said. In an attempt to force his way out, Korpi faked stomach pains and a psychotic episode while in a closet meant to serve as solitary confinement. He kicked at the door and screamed, "I'm so f*cked-up inside... I gotta go to a doctor... I’m burning up inside, don’t you know?"

    Korpi later claimed his breakdown was an act and that he faked the mental emergency to get out of the experiment early to have time to study for his Graduate Record Examination. "Anybody who is a clinician would know that I was faking," he noted.

    Defending his experiment, Zimbardo pointed out that Korpi changed his story numerous times and believed Korpi's claim was an attempt to cover his embarrassment over his breakdown. Zimbardo also noted, "...any researcher who believes a research participant is having a breakdown is ethically obliged to treat the breakdown as real, even if the breakdown later turns out to be feigned."   

  • The Guards' Mistreatment Of Prisoners Was Trained, Not Behavioral

    The experiment’s warden David Jaffe set up a list of rules for the guards and instructed them to act as if they really worked in a correctional facility. He told them, "The guards have to know that every guard is going to be what we call a 'tough guard.'" David Eshelman took his guard role seriously, earning himself the nickname "John Wayne" after he adopted a southern accent and a reputation for punishing inmates.

    Using previous acting experience, Eshelman claimed he created a specific character for the experiment. He explained, "I took it as a kind of an improv exercise. I believed that I was doing what the researchers wanted me to do, and I thought I’d do it better than anybody else by creating this despicable guard persona."

  • Quitting The Experiment Was Not As Easy As Zimbardo Claimed

    After volunteering for the experiment and discovering it wasn't what he thought, Douglas Korpi wanted to leave. He soon found out, however, that the guards wouldn't allow him to do so. When prisoners Richard Yacco and Clay Ramsay also learned they couldn't leave, Ramsay started a hunger strike, explaining, "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."

    For many years, Zimbardo maintained the men's claims were false until uncovered documentation from Stanford proved him wrong. In a recorded conversation, Zimbardo could be heard telling his staff, "There are only two conditions under which you can leave, medical help or psychiatric... I think they really believed they can’t get out."

    After being accused of lying, Zimbardo blamed the men's failure to use the exact phrase, "I want to quit the experiment." He claimed they signed an agreement with this information, but later examination showed it was not included in the document. Zimbardo then changed his story, explaining his refusal to allow participants to leave as an attempt to get them into the mindset of inmates, not students participating in an experiment.

  • The Study Would Have Likely Failed Peer Review

    The normal procedure for publishing a scientific study includes a peer review. After a scientist writes an article and submits it to a scientific journal, peers within the same field of study review the article and check its quality. If they believe the study fails to meet scientific standards, they recommend that the journal reject the article. Failing a peer review might mean the study has a flaw in its design or doesn't include enough evidence.

    Zimbardo first published his study in Naval Research Review, a publication with no connection to psychology. Some believe Zimbardo made this decision because he feared rejection, while others think his work failed to meet the scientific standards of a peer review. Zimbardo claimed the organization gave him a grant and he therefore had to publish his work in their journal.

    In 1973, Zimbardo published his study in the New York Times Magazine and received criticism for bypassing peer review once again. He insisted he chose to publish it in a mainstream outlet to ensure he'd receive a larger audience. However, according to psychology professor David Amodio, "Zimbardo couldn’t convince his scientific peers in social psychology, so he circumvented the field and went straight to the people."