The abuse lurking in our institutions

Alison Liebling, Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Cambridge, reviews The Stanford Prison Experiment: A Film by Kyle Patrick Alvarez (2015).

In an interview with Leonidis Cheliotis in 2004, Philip Zimbardo said 'I believe that the human mind has the capacity for infinite possibilities, that we are not born good or evil, but have mental templates that allow us to become anything we can imagine ... Mother Teresa, Hitler, Osama bin Laden, Martin Luther King, are all part of our human nature waiting for the right or wrong circumstances to actualise those potentials.'

This is a deeply uncomfortable, powerful, and gripping film. It has deservedly won several awards, including Best International Feature Film at the Edinburgh Film Festival and two awards at the Sundance Film Festival. It contains two important messages: first, that power is dangerous; and second, that environments and ‘systems’ matter in the production of abuse.

The film is convincingly set in the 1970s, when the simulated prison experiment it depicts was carried out, in the basement of Stanford University’s Psychology Department. But the film has chilling contemporary relevance, as Zimbardo explains in his 2007 book ‘The Lucifer Effect’ and the various TED and other talks he has given on the project – the visual evidence of the abuse of detainees in Abu Ghraib in 2003 resonated starkly with the findings of his doomed ‘experiment’. The central storyline is haunting as the behaviour of the guards towards their prisoners almost precisely replicates the behaviour of officers in Tier 1A at Abu Ghraib. As Zimbardo puts it, ‘the line between good and evil is permeable’. The institutions we create transform people, but whether they do this in damaging or humane ways is up to us. We should never underestimate their power to do harm. Nor should we ever create flows of power without accountability. Occasionally individuals become heroes and assert their moral autonomy, but more usually, they become corrupted. Creative evil is the result.

Zimbardo and his fellow ‘authority’ experimenter, Milgram, were school mates. Both studied psychology and both were intrigued by the human capacity for ‘evil’. Motivated by curiosity about the cooperation of thousands of Germans with the systematic destruction of the Jews and others during the 1930s and 40s, Milgram conducted a series of experiments intended to investigate human readiness to obey morally wrong acts, in 1961. He called his experiments ‘the effects of punishment on learning’, and persuaded duped volunteers to administer shocks of increasing severity to a ‘student’ who gave wrong answers to a series of tests. The experiment was conducted under the strict guidance of the experimenter, who encouraged the subjects to continue. Many of the subjects showed signs of severe distress, and some eventually refused to go on, but the prestige and presence of the experimenter resulted in higher obedience levels. Sixty five per cent of the subjects gave shocks up to and including 450 volts, apparently endangering the life of the actor who masqueraded as the student. Zimbardo alludes to Milgram’s work when he says ‘all evil starts with 15 volts’.

A few years later, Zimbardo conducted an experiment (funded by the US Navy, who were concerned about conflict between guards and prisoners in their naval prisons) in which subjects role-played prisoners and guards in a simulated prison, with his graduate students Craig Haney and William Curtis Banks (1973). The aim of the experiment was to ‘assess the power of social forces in this situation’. Subjects were selected after careful diagnostic testing of a large group of volunteer male college students. They were then randomly assigned to play either prisoners or guards. Participants were paid $15 a day for their involvement (the equivalent of $90 today). The experiment was intended to last two weeks. It was abandoned after six days, when the abuse perpetrated by the guards reached intolerable levels. Many watching the film will wonder why it was not abandoned earlier. Zimbardo has devoted some of his own writing and reflection to wondering this himself. The prison’s dark, compelling forces drew him in too, so that he became the prison’s ‘administrator’: a world in which order and security must prevail. Most of the guards were upset by the decision to stop the experiment and were enjoying their roles. 

The film sticks closely to the details of the experiment, with only a few artistic devices providing flourish, or indeed less violence, in places. Behavioural interactions were observed and video-taped, and the participants were asked to complete questionnaires, self-report scales and interviews. The simulated prison elicited unexpectedly intense, realistic and pathological reactions from the participants. The prisoners experienced a loss of personal identity and reacted intensely to the arbitrary control of their behaviour, becoming passive, dependent, depressed and helpless, or angry and violent, or both. Half the prisoners developed acute emotional disturbance. Most of the guards experienced a gain in social power, status and group identification, which made their role-playing rewarding. Few of the reactions could be attributed to pre-existing personality traits. The authors of the original study concluded that imprisonment destroys the human spirit of both the imprisoned and the imprisoning. They argued that the brutality of prison stems not from the characteristics of individual guards and prisoners (the ‘dispositional hypothesis’), but from the ‘deep structure’ of the prison as an institution. This process is depicted brutally but convincingly throughout the film.

The experiment aimed to create activities and experiences characteristic of the American prison: feelings of power and powerlessness, of control and oppression, of satisfaction and frustration, of arbitrary rule and resistance to authority. Uniforms were given (to an extreme specification) and the guards were given police night sticks to carry. They wore dark sunglasses, to hide their emotional expression. Once participants had signed up to the experiment and its terms and conditions, they were ‘unexpectedly’ and brashly arrested at their places of residence. Interactions between prisoners and guards quickly became negative, hostile, affronting and dehumanising. One guard reported being distressed by the suffering of the prisoners and considered requesting a transfer from the role of guard to that of prisoner. We see his passive reservation only fleetingly in the film.

Some prisoners coped better than others. Personality and attitude dispositions accounted for some of the variation in reactions and adjustments to imprisonment. There were slight differences between prisoners who demanded early release and those who stayed until the experiment was terminated: those who remained scored higher on conformity, conventionality, extroversion, authoritarianism and empathy. Over time, the guard behaviour became more insulting, with some variation between three shifts, the evening or night shift being the most harassing. In interviews, prisoners expressed negative feeling, outlook and self-regard. Their regard for each other deteriorated over time, largely as a result of the humiliations practised by the guards. They began to act in ways which helped to ‘encourage’ their victimisation by the guards. The prisoners expressed surprise that they had felt so out of control of their emotions. The authors were surprised by how easily sadistic behaviour could be elicited in ‘non-sadistic types’, and how easily emotional breakdown could occur:

In less than one week their behaviour in this simulated prison could be characterised as pathological and anti-social. The negative, anti-social reactions observed were not the product of an environment created by combining a collection of deviant personalities, but rather, the result of an intrinsically pathological situation. (Haney, Banks & Zimbardo, 1973, p.90)

The authors argued that their findings had major relevance for staff training and development. The study was severely criticised on methodological grounds: the experimental set up was too extreme and the results were actively sought (Jones & Fowles, 1984) and some of these criticisms inevitably can be made of the film. But there are clear resonances with real situations observed in contemporary prisons and reports of U.S. military prisons at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Zimbardo warns us that ‘all prisons are social experiments’. The abusive officers said ‘it was all just fun and games’. From the Attica riots of 1971 to the Medway Secure Training Centre scandal of 2015, it is clear that abuse lurks in our institutions. That is because it lurks, according to Zimbardo, in our souls, and because we fail to notice or organise against it in our institutions. It can start with 15 volts – or with much less than this. The refusal to call prisoners by their names (still a point of contention in many prisons) is an indicator of their lack of moral status. Less legitimate forms of order follow. ‘Bad barrels’ plus indifference should trouble us more than ‘bad apples’. The abuse of power crushes the human spirit, whatever form it takes. Both evil and heroism are ‘ordinary’: we can choose to foster either.

I wonder whether showing this film, and following it with structured discussions, might be a valuable exercise in many settings. It has relevance for research ethics as well as for prison and criminal justice scholars, students, managers and on the ground practitioners.

-  Alison Liebling is Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Cambridge and the Director of the Institute of Criminology’s Prisons Research Centre.    

The film is available on DVD and demand. Picture credit: 


Cheliotis, L. (2004). An Interview with Professor Philip Zimbardo. Prison Service Journal, 155, 47-50.

Haney, C., Banks, C. & Zimbardo, P. (1973). Interpersonal Dynamics in a Simulated Prison. International Journal of Criminology, 1, 69-97.

Jones, K. & Fowles, A. J. (1984). Ideas on Institutions: Analysing the Literature on Long-Term Care and Custody. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Zimbardo, P. (2007). The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil London: Rider.

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