This famous experiment was conducted in August 1971. The researcher had placed an ad in the Palo Alto City newspaper.

70 people replied and were brought in for interviews. According to Zimbardo, the lead researcher, these were “diagnostic interviews”. The term “diagnostic interview” was understood to mean looking for mental instability or particular sadistic tendencies in the respondents. The interviews were also used to eliminate respondents with “medical disability or history of crime or drug abuse”.

After the interviews, they were left with 24 participants.

This is the very first point of contention. There are many articles that discuss how these elimination interviews were not screening for the right psychological indicators. This is an open question because different people can have different opinions on what are disqualifying indicators.

One article question if the diagnostic interviews tested for BDSM tendencies. As shown about, the understanding was that sadistic tendencies were tested for, but the actual description by Zimbardo does not explicitly state that exclusion.

Also note, there are many articles that reference or discuss the SPE, there are books and movies about it. What I was unable to find is the original peer reviewed publication. The quotes I am using come from a 1975-slide show that Zimbardo prepared.

The way the experiment began, again according to Zimbardo, was:

On a quiet Sunday morning in August, a Palo Alto, California police car swept through the town picking up collage students as part of a mass arrest for violation of Penal Codes 211, Armed Robbery, and Burglary, a 459 PC. The suspect was picked up at his home, charged, warned of his legal rights, spread-eagled against the police car, searched and handcuffed; often as surprised and curious neighbors looked on. The suspect was put in the rear of the police car and carried off to the police station, the sirens wailing.

The car entered the station, the suspect was removed, brought inside the station, formally booked, again warned of his Miranda rights, fingerprinted, and a complete identification made. The suspect was then taken to a holding cell, where he was left blindfolded to ponder his fate and wonder what he had done to get himself into this mess.

Blindfolds are not part of normal police procedures. Before the victim even arrives at the mock prison, they have already been treated outside the normal practices.

One of the things to note is that Zimbardo was a prison reform activist. To set up his mock prison, he “called upon the services of experienced consultants”. His primary consultant was Carlo Prescott, a convicted felon with seventeen years in San Quentin, Soledad, Folsom and other prison.

His other consultants came from a pool of other ex-convicts and correctional personnel.

This would be the equivalent of somebody wanting to find out how access to guns effects people, and then hiring Giffords as their lead consultant. With their other consultants being experts recommended by Giffords, such as Brady, March for Our Lives, and Everytown.

As part of their mock prison, they created a punishment cell, called “The Hole”. It was a 2×2 closet. If you read The Gulag Archipelago: An experiment in Literary Investigation you will find a section where Solzhenitsyn talks about prisoners being tortured by being placed in an out building about 2 by 2 with countless bugs.

It makes me think that maybe Zimbardo might have heard some speeches by Solzhenitsyn and decided to implement parts of that narrative as part of his mock representation of an American prison.

From the point the prisoners are brought into the mock prison, they are treated in a manner to break them.

Each prisoner is searched and then systematically stripped naked, he is then deloused with a spray, to convey our belief that he may have germs or lice — … a degradation procedure was designed in part to humiliate him, and in part to be sure he isn’t bringing in any germs to contaminate our jail.

The prisoners were issued a smock, no underclothes, a pair of rubber sandals, a hair cap. They were fitted with a chain to their ankle.

Again, not at all normal.

I’m disgusted at what I’m reading. More so because Zimbardo is proud of his work.

He used this work to try to change people’s opinion of prison life. To imply that all prison personal were petty, sadistic, dictators.

In 2019, Thibault Le Texier published his paper “Debunking the Stanford Prison Experiment”

The Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) is one of psychology’s most famous studies. It has been criticized on many grounds, and yet a majority of textbook authors have ignored these criticisms in their discussions of the SPE, thereby misleading both students and the general public about the study’s questionable scientific validity. Data collected from a thorough investigation of the SPE archives and interviews with 15 of the participants in the experiment further question the study’s scientific merit. These data are not only supportive of previous criticisms of the SPE, such as the presence of demand characteristics, but provide new criticisms of the SPE based on heretofore unknown information. These new criticisms include the biased and incomplete collection of data, the extent to which the SPE drew on a prison experiment devised and conducted by students in one of Zimbardo’s classes 3 months earlier, the fact that the guards received precise instructions regarding the treatment of the prisoners, the fact that the guards were not told they were subjects, and the fact that participants were almost never completely immersed by the situation. Possible explanations of the inaccurate textbook portrayal and general misperception of the SPE’s scientific validity over the past 5 decades, in spite of its flaws and shortcomings, are discussed.
Banuazizi and Movahedi (1975) examined the possibility of demand characteristics operating in the SPE. They provided 150 college students with a description of the procedure used in the SPE, the advertisement used by Zimbardo to recruit volunteers for the SPE, a description of the rights and privileges the subjects agreed to waive to participate, and a description of the arrest and incarceration procedures in the SPE. Banuazizi and Movahedi used a set of open-ended questions to determine the students’ thoughts as to what the experimenter’s hypothesis was and their expectations regarding the outcome of the experiment. Of the students tested, 81% accurately figured out the experimenter’s hypothesis (that guards would be aggressive and that prisoners would revolt or comply), and 90% predicted that the guards would be “oppressive, hostile, aggressive, humiliating” (p. 158), thereby supporting the argument that demand characteristics were likely operating in the SPE and that the participants in the SPE would have probably guessed how Zimbardo and his co experimenters wanted them to behave.

In other words, as a commentor pointed out on my article about Ordinary Men, there is a strong likelihood that the SPE is bad science.

Spread the love

By awa

7 thoughts on “The Stanford Prison Experiment”
  1. I’m a social psychologist. Fellow of 2 associations, APA & APS. Resigned from both over their political bias. I taught this about the SPE for many years. It’s not “ science” at all. Zimbardo should have been in jail; instead he was elected president of APA, which tells you all you need to know about the membership.

      1. Sorry, no. If you have access to a university library you can find the original article. I’m long retired. LeTexier’s paper should have the reference.

  2. Glad to see you found that interesting, brings me a smile to see that I’ve brought something new to your attention after all the things you guys have brought to mine. Thanks and keep it up!

    1. Part of what makes me a “conservative”, in my opinion, is an open mind. I’ve known about the SPE for many years. I’ve seen some original videos, I’ve watched some movies about it. What I’ve read and seen all pointed in the same direction, “The SPE shows that people put in power quickly become cruel and evil.”
      This doesn’t pass the sniff test, but I didn’t sniff.
      When you pushed my nose into it, I went and did more research. What I was expecting to find was some sort of junk science that I would have to debunk. What I found along the way were numerous articles in well-respected publications calling the SPE into question.
      From what I read, I am not willing to use the SPE as support for my arguments moving forward.

  3. I am willing to bet the interview questions eliminated anyone that might have had any actual knowledge of rules and laws about prisoners, like former police, correctional officers, or MP/SP/AP.

    Also, the “guards” obviously received a lot of cues for the expected behavior from the tools they were given, and the layout of the “prison.” Things like blindfolds, a 2X2 cell, etc. If they provided them a whip or a bat, I am sure the guards would have assumed that was tacit permission to use it, absent any rules and regulations.

Only one rule: Don't be a dick.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.