If you've studied any psychology whatsoever, you'll have heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment. Along with Milgram, it's one of the most famous psychology experiments in history. It formed the basis of a lot of what psychologists thought about power, control, and conformity.
Now, however, a new expose based on recordings from the experiment has revealed huge problems with Philip Zimbardo's research, including revelations that participants were "acting".
Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment has been the inspiration for fiction for years, due to the extraordinary events that took place as the experiment became "out of control".
The experiment, for those who don't know it, took 24 volunteers and placed them in a mock prison in the basement of the psychology department at Stanford University.
The participants, who had been psychologically evaluated to eliminate candidates with psychological problems or a history of violence or drug abuse, were then assigned to be either guards or prisoners.
The prisoners were treated like prisoners, stripped of their possessions by the guards, were referred to only by their prisoner number, and kept in cells for much of the day. Guards, according to the published study at the time, were told to do whatever they deemed necessary to maintain law and order within the "prison".
Over the course of the experiment, both groups appeared to begin to conform to their new roles a little too well. Guards began to harass and mistreat prisoners, Prisoners began to act "crazy" (in the words of Zimbardo), and the experiment was ultimately aborted just six days into the planned two-week run time due to safety concerns.
One prisoner during the experiment famously broke down and began screaming "I’m burning up inside" in the distressing footage. The same participant told author Ben Blum that he was merely acting, as he thought it was what the psychologists wanted.
“Anybody who is a clinician would know that I was faking,” Douglas Korpi told Blum. “If you listen to the tape, it’s not subtle. I’m not that good at acting. I mean, I think I do a fairly good job, but I’m more hysterical than psychotic.”
Another psychologist, Alex Haslam, tried to replicate Zimbardo's study in an experiment filmed by the BBC. The test failed to replicate the results of Zimbardo. Haslam has since given a talk on the subject, seen by social neuroscientist Jay Van Bavel.
Van Bavel reports that audio recordings, which you can listen to on Stanford's website, shows guards being asked to act like a "brutal prison guard".
"The bottom line is that conformity isn’t natural, blind or inevitable," Van Bavel writes of the results of Zimbardo's experiment.
"Zimbardo was not only deeply wrong about this – but his public comments misled millions of people into accepting this false narrative about the Stanford Prison Experiment."