September 21st, 2021


An Experiment in Cruelty

Lenore Skenazy

By Lenore Skenazy

Published August 5, 2015

The Stanford Prison Experiment is not exactly a date movie. In fact, I'm not sure anyone will enjoy it. I hated it.

But I'm glad I saw it.

The movie re-creates one of the most famous — and infamous — psychological experiments in history. In 1971, Stanford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo recruited 24 middleclass young men from Palo Alto, Calif., to live in a mock prison for two weeks. They'd be paid $15 a day — not bad money back then.

Randomly, the group was divided into guards and prisoners. The "prisoners" were then arrested by real Palo Alto police who'd agreed to play along and taken to the jail — actually the basement of the Stanford psych department. There they were fingerprinted, blindfolded and sprayed with "de-lousing" compound (in reality, deodorant).

They were then issued serial numbers and smocks that looked like dresses. For their part, the "guards" were given nightsticks and reflective aviator glasses. The idea was to dehumanize both groups.

Boy, did it work.

The movie, starring Billy Crudup as Zimbardo and based on actual videos and transcripts of the experiment, shows the guards experimenting with their power: "You will call us 'sir.'"

"Yes, sir."

"No, call us 'Mr. Correctional Officer, sir,'" insists one guard, twirling his nightstick menacingly.

In very short order, the guards start insisting on more and more abasement: I don't like the way you said 'sir.' Give me 20 pushups. Say it again. No, I still don't like it. Give me 40 pushups and 40 jumping jacks. I don't appreciate your attitude. I'm going to have the other prisoners sit on your back while you do your pushups. What? You can't do it? Into the hole.

"The Hole" — an unlit closet — served as solitary confinement. Over and over, the guards started locking "prisoners" there if they spoke back or simply didn't finish their breakfast. And watching all this unfold, unseen behind a wall, Zimbardo did nothing to stop the budding tyrants. Not when they marched the prisoners around with bags over their heads. Not when they forced the prisoners to use a pail in the public hallway as their toilet. Even when the guards were making the men bend over and simulate raping each other, Zimbardo just watched.

And there he was, watching again, at a screening I attended in New York City at a home for former prisoners returning to civilian life.

When the lights went on, the audience was introduced to the surprisingly young-looking Zimbardo, now 82, and immediately their hands went up:

"I was in prison practically all my life, and I never had any discussion with a guard," said one man, disputing the film's verisimilitude. "You can't 'create' a prison."

Zimbardo agreed: This was not reality. His intent was simply to show how even good people can become heartless in a heartless system.

"I read that your study has been criticized," said another man. "That the guards were actually told to be cruel."

This criticism isn't new to the doctor, who insists he told the guards only to "be" guards — leaving the interpretation up to them.

Zimbardo actually ended up cutting the experiment short, after his girlfriend showed up on day six and was appalled. It was only then, Zimbardo said, that he realized he had gotten too into his own "role" as prison superintendent.

"I thought it was a brilliant movie," said Mauer Hernandez, sitting quietly as the audience drifted out. Gray-haired and bifocaled, he'd served 10 years for drug distribution. Watching the movie made his legs twitch. It made him tear up, remembering some of the cruelty he'd experienced. He had to force himself to watch.

If we all do the same, maybe we, too, will be able to resist the urge to dehumanize if life ever bequeaths us that power.

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