What the Creator of the Stanford Prison Experiment Thinks of the New Film About It

Photo: Spencer Shwetz/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

When the Stanford Prison Experiment concluded in 1971, it was a watershed moment for social psychology. The study, conducted by Stanford University Professor Philip Zimbardo, was designed to fully simulate a jail for 14 days in order to study the effects of imprisonment. Twelve young men were randomly assigned to be guards, and twelve were assigned to be prisoners, and locked in a Palo Alto basement. 

Over the course of six days, the young men took on their roles fully. “Guards” emotionally and physically abused the “inmates,” and “inmates” became reticent to question authority and sank into deep depressions. Things degraded to the point that the experiment was called off early. Although today the study is widely acknowledged as unethical, the experiment is still taught in psychology classes as an example of how authority corrupts — not to mention as an example of why scientific research involving human subjects is so heavily regulated.

The movie version, which has been kicking around Hollywood for years, has finally been released, allowing viewers to experience the study and all its horrifying and elucidating truths about human nature. Starring Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, and Michael Angarano and based Zimbardo’s book The Lucifer Effect, director Kyle Patrick Alverez re-creates the experiment with startling, and often upsetting, accuracy. (At the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, the film won the Alfred P. Sloan prize for science in film.) Zimbardo, who was a consultant on the film, spoke with Science of Us at the movie’s New York premiere at No. 8 about watching himself depicted onscreen, the film’s honesty, and why he still stands by his findings.

What was it like for you to watch this film?
Strange. Because they used my name. Everyone else has a fictional name. When I’m watching someone say “Dr. Zimbardo,” I say “yes.” And then, of course, I know all the dialogue. So I’m finishing in my head the sentence of the prisoner or guard, but it was very exciting. Because the movie is a brilliant re-creation of what really happened that weekend in the basement, and it is done better than I could have imagined. This has been going on for 35 years. Many, many studios, many, many scripts, many, many famous actors were going to play, and it all crashed.

I had given up hope and was like, Oh my gosh, I’m going to die before anything comes of this. But for me, what the movie does, is it informs the general public about an important psychological experience. That’s where the media connects this experience with the general public, and in this movie it does it as good as can be. I was on the set for some of the shooting, so I feel like I had a really positive involvement in it. It is a really disturbing movie, but the hope is that people will come away asking important questions about themselves and human nature. What kind of guard would I have been? What kind of prisoner? How could people do this, what are other situations in everyday life where people do this? It is really about abuse of power, so you want people to ask what happens when people get in positions of power, like a boss; it makes you think about bullies. It ought to trigger lots of reflection as well as stress.

Is it an accurate representation of what happened that weekend? 
It’s at least 90 percent exactly right on. There are a few scenes that moved around. But nothing is added in the movie that wasn’t in the study. 

Was it an accurate portrayal of yourself?
The portrayal was very accurate; it was painfully accurate, and it revived my guilt for allowing the experiment to go on too long. I should have ended it after the second day, after the second prisoner broke down, but he is me, if anything he is a more intense me, but Billy Crudup is also playing an academic professor. He’s even more serious than I am or was. But it was eye opening. It is like opening a wound from 44 years ago. 

What’s still relevant today about the experiment? 
It’s an experiment about human nature, but it’s about asking what would you do if you had total power over someone else. What would you do if people were dominating you and you were in a group? How would you organize the prisoners to rebel against the guards. But it’s relevant in the situation in New York and how guards treated prisoners at Rikers Island; it is relevant for retraining police officers to be aware of their bias; and it really ought to reform changes in the correctional system. We have 2 million citizens in prison — more than twice as much as any nation in the world. Citizens pay millions of dollars in taxes for a system that doesn’t work. I hope it will trigger ideas about what’s happening in our prisons, or in our schools.

This interview has been edited.

Phillip Zimbardo on the New Film About Him