American Psychological Association

119th Annual Convention
Washington D.C., August 4-7 2011

CONVERSATION HOUR #3103 - A Very Special Event

Phil Zimbardo 201140th Anniversary of the Stanford Prison Experiment

Philip Zimbardo: 40th Anniversary of the Stanford Prison Experiment


The presentation began to the sound of Santana's music: 'Evil Ways'.

Zimbardo had with him, live or on video, the original "cast" from the Stanford Prison Experiment including his research assistant at the time (now a social psychologist), Craig Haney. Zimbardo narrated (live and on media) actual videos of the Prison Experiment, describing events from beginning discussions about the importance of realistic initial arrests to the details of why it had to end abruptly. Zimbardo illuminated the role and impact of the woman who convinced him to stop the experiment after only 6 days: Dr. Christina Maslach. She is here now too, and is the wife of Phil Zimbardo.

Through reflection and a fascinating multi-media presentation, Zimbardo described his own "transformation" in understanding how good people can do evil things, from the Prison experiment to Abu Ghraib, which was "exponentially worse" than the Stanford experiment. His narrative takes us from the first says of the experiment, through its aftermath, and into his present focus on "heroic imagination".

Zimbardo said that he knows his reputation for some is Dr. Evil, for all the heat and light the Stanford prison experiment hath wrought. However, he has to decided to "change his evil ways". (Get it?) And now, he said, "I’d rather be the good witch of the East – or West".


An introduction to the panel was next accompanied by a split-image slide of each participant at the time of the experiment, and more recently: Craig Haney (U.Santa Cruz), Christina Maslach (UC-Berkeley), and Scott Plous (Wesleyan). While Zimbardo was the researcher and warden, Haney also played a key role in the study's day to day implementation, while Dr. Maslach was the one who convinced and inspired Zimbardo to end it - and to reflect upon the experiment's impact, personally and professionally. Dr. Plous has spent years organizing and presenting the mountains of archival material. Zimbardo noted that much of the media being used here today has now been turned into a documentary DVD, entitled Quiet Rage, produced by the team which created the piece about Milgram's study, "Obedience". Today to re-experience some the images, scenes, and memories, the panel would watch and listen along with Zimbardo and the audience, and react.

In terms of the conclusions he has drawn, Zimbardo acknowledged that for some it might seem a bit like hearing Al Gore's 'Inconvenient Truth', but there are important lessons to be drawn from examining a few inconvenient realities which nevertheless clearly shape the way we think: 1. The Power of Stories 2. The Power of Images 3. The Power of Technology

Scott Plous was then introduced by Zimbardo. Plous' role with the documentation and dissemination of material dates back to 1999, when he offered his assistance at preserving, organizing, and sharing myriad records and artifacts to document this (in)famous experiment. Plous has gotten some interesting feedback over the past decade plus, running the gamut from reverence and gratitude, to organizations such as Amnesty International quickly expressing interest, to various critiques and criticisms. In particular he gets emails saying in effect "It's not a real experiment! There's no control group!" No matter, apparently, that "experiments often are covering new ground...[and] rarely does a study require an independent variable. But we had one: guards, randomly assigned..." Moreover, Zimbardo said as some images appeared onscreen, "Situations matter." He referred also to one other example of this: the famous Asch/conformity experiments. "Under certain circumstances people will harm others."

People have complained "the guards were given permission". But 1) they were not explicitly coached to be cruel and were in fact initially given guidelines against excessive cruelty; and 2) "Under certain circumstances it takes surprisingly little to get good people to do bad things."

[Note: Zimbardo's book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, describes the arrests, prison environment, and other aspects covered by this presentation today, in great detail, with photos and annotated bibliography.]

Some comments by Zimbardo accompanying the multimedia show:

-- An ad was placed in local papers seeking 75 volunteers (with the final selection ultimately randomly assigned to a group)

-- As described in the book too, "it was imperative" that the arrest process be realistic, to simulate the feeling of "surrender[ing] freedom, and no way out except parole. They can't just say 'I quit' "

-- Prisoner 8612, onscreen, was the first to be arrested, "frisked and cuffed and put in the car."

[On screen: a video of a dissenting viewpoint by a 'prisoner' - "They were taking this experiment too seriously!"]

-- The last arrested was the first to break down [in 36 hours, 14 August 1971] -- Like Abu Ghraib, the situation began with taking complete control and escalated through a hierarchy of oppression, from "degrading things" and forcing push-ups for minor infractions, to "moving towards more intense treatment".

-- The 'chief guard' (now a social psychologist) played a pivotal role. [video of stripping a student wearing a paper bag over his head]

-- The guards wore dark glasses, "like a mask". Image of guard in video: "I needed to be the worst, most cruel prison guard that I could be. [I studied] how to humiliate people". While not explicitly told to be cruel, he decided he needed to "ramp up the harassment". The warden's not stopping me.

-- Next clip: a student truly "freaking out" - cursing, screaming, "I want out!" Guards were beginning to feel their power in controlling the minutiae of daily life, "like a puppeteer".

-- When prisoner 4106 freaked out, he was placed in solitary confinement. When he sought to incite a rebellion, "he is totally rejected".

So, "why did we and the study end after only six days?" The answer begins with
Christina Maslach, who is here today to tell us firsthand what she saw and how she reacted:

"What really got to me was seeing a group being led down the hall to the bathroom, with bags over their heads. It was ... dehumanizing. I couldn't watch it!" Shattering the adrenaline and excitement of how powerful this laboratory had become and what an amazing experiment this had turned out to be, etc., she was seeing it with fresh eyes (something Zimbardo sees in retrospect was needed). A respected colleague and friend (who Zimbardo had expected to be duly impressed by the experiment), she told him soberly "I'm not sure I want to have anything to do with you, if this is the real you. You've changed." Zimbardo had become totally immersed in the system, if not actively, then through his detachment and lack of action.

Zimbardo: "So what was I to do with this woman who challenged my newfound authority?
I married her the next year, August 10, 1972, in the Stanford Church - and we made two lovely daughters and lived happily ever after."

In introducing Craig Haney, Zimbardo asked what some may be thinking, "So who complies? The majority of us."


Craig Haney

Craig Haney spoke next, his presentation framed by a quote: "The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice." His studies, and his life among the guards and prisoners, led Dr. Haney to become a strong advocate for reform and humanization within the prison system. He presented many graphs and tables underscoring how in California (especially) and as a nation, our prison system houses disproportionately more incarcerated people as a percentage of population - for example 726 Americans per 100,000 in prison, compared with 143/100,000 in the UK and Wales, 550 in Russia, 116 in Canada, and only 58 in Japan.

Haney said that he took away from the Stanford Prison Experiment three profound lessons:

  1. Context matters. You can lead good people to do bad things.
  2. Prisoners are people. It seems simple but we can dehumanize prisoners.
  3. Mis-treatment has consequences. We saw profound consequences even in 6 days. Think about long-term...

It was a "remarkable learning experience", so much so that it shaped his life, and directed him towards work in real prisons, such as Washington State Penitentiary. And yet, despite his passionate desire to "spread the word", as his data illustrated, incarceration rates in the US have continued to explode, despite the occasional wins in court for humane treatment. However, in California there was an explicit court ruling to the effect of prison being about punishment, and nothing more. A slide proclaims "The Death of Rehabilitation". On the Federal level, one court found (in 1995) that solitary confinement may be akin to psychological torture. In a ruling on behalf of prisoners, with Supreme Court Justice Kennedy in the majority citing inhumane conditions, Justice Scalia dissented, saying this was "perhaps the most radical [institutional reform order] issued by a court in our nation's history." [Brown vs. Plata/Coleman]

The audience was shown slides of newspaper headlines, and photo of tiny cells with barely enough space for a toilet and sink. Then " something new was added to cells: roommates." Soon seen in the news: prisoners sleeping on floors, and in triple bunks in converted day rooms. The warehouses are full. In addition to the general disregard for conditions, "prisons became a default institution for the mentally ill" as psychiatric patients were sent back into communities under the program we came to know as "de-institutionalization"

And the trend continued, not towards humanizing conditions but towards adding armed guards, electric fences, etc., making sure all the prisoners were "under gun cover". Prisoners chained together while awaiting transport. Placement 23 hours a day in "SuperMax" cells.

It can be discouraging to observe: We began to lose sight of the 3 principles (above) - context, humanity, consequences. Haney and others have been fighting in the courts. Despite research and literature reviews on trauma, and other "evidence" of societal harm supposedly done in the name of justice, inequity continues, untreated mental illness is rampant, and court decisions in favor of prisoners have not been complied with. The sense was that prisoners are not supposed to be Club Med, and "this wasn't group therapy", although some small implementation of policy changes happened, such as suicide checks by guards every 30 minutes.

Context matters! With respect to Dr. Maslach coming into such a system, her context was the real world of ethics and humanity; she was not caught up in the excitement of discovery as were the experimenters. People think she was really cool But she felt isolated too:

"It's scary. You feel alone. You feel like a deviant." [Think Asch.]

Imagine what you might do if you just walked into something like this. "Things matter too much.... Something serious is happening here." More context: "There were two important facts: First I was late [into the event's formative dynamics]. Second, I was an outsider. I didn't have any role within the prison. Unlike the others i was not a part of it. I gave no consent. I wasn't a prisoner or guard or therapist or warden. I didn't have an assigned role. I wasn't there every day. The situation changed gradually, every day. Every day escalated a little bit.... In some sense I saw it differently." In a way, she felt like the prisoner who was a late entrant, who went on a hunger strike, demanded to know what the hell was going on here, and declared 'I'm not going to take this!'. But he was actually acting like a prisoner, rebelling, starting a strike. Unfortunately, "it didn't work out well for him". But then too, "I was reacting more in terms of my relationships with the people doing this and trying to figure out how this could happen." She also reflected on some of the nuance which came out of the Milgram studies, like the difference between dissent and disobedience.

Some other thoughts. First, on one hand, "nobody ever told tough guard John Wayne to stop." A point to consider. Secondly, "on being given the label or hero, or ethics person...a few points. People say, Oh My G-d, this was so unethical! The human subjects committee would never approve. Wrong. They did approve. The researchers, in gaining approval, were required to put in place health planning, legal documents, [etc.]. What's happened is that more ethics requirements [now] are 'front-loaded' rather than involving scrutiny of ongoing things. It didn't matter here though, as it was reviewed - prior to the events unfolding."

The take-away? "Just don't do this kind of study again. We haven't learned the lesson - We need to understand more about behavior."

In terms of career, Dr. Maslach draws upon her own experience and is pursuing her interest in "the psychology of dehumanization - How is it possible that people can treat others in ways which are inhumane? How often does it happen that helping professionals move to a more cynical, dehumanizing attitude?" [Fortunately not a lot; and according to Milgram's estimate, only a fraction of 1% disregard humanity.] Maslach has interviewed (real) prison guards and become aware of some mechanisms she can now describe as "dehumanization in self-defense", as when they speak of "#30 in the next room" rather than a person with a name. And then there is "'detached concern'. Could that work?" She spoke with some professional workers about the notion of detached concern and was told, "we call that burnout". When she started surveying others she found "a huge response and recognition" of the 'burnout' factor.

Obviously, Maslach reflected, the Stanford Prison Experiment was a part of what motivated her chosen pursuits. That and something else. She recalled hearing George Miller's legendary APA address. He spoke not about all his research or accomplishments but about the need to "give psychology away". This message/mantra has moved many psychologists. (And right "here & now" too!) It's one thing we can do to get out the word about people as people. Now with technology to promote popular access, if a story is compelling (and "ideally with images") it can be shared widely, and perhaps for good.

Scott Plous spoke a bit about the web site(s) He was the founder of, which in its own rite is an excellent online resource (which I have recommended to students and on my own site). On this site one can also find a section, complete with photos and other media, specifically on the Stanford Prison Experiment. According to some web stats, both the main site and the Stanford Prison Experiment site receive a great number of visits, of sustained duration, with viewers exploring deep into the site. There is quite a range and depth of material.

Zimbardo returned to presenting some of his past and recent experiences, noting that between the Stanford University library, and Akron University, they have "all the memorabilia... [And] We just found a new box."

Zimbardo was known in the 1970's for his research on "shyness", one of the two interests (along with time perspective) which have long intrigued him. [ In the case of the SPE, " We were all stuck in the immediate PRESENT of that intense situation."] Zimbardo described how "we took away people's freedom of association, mobility...Some did this voluntarily. They called themselves "shy". It appeared that among this population, people " internalized both the guard and the prisoner." He soon realized there was virtually no research on adult shyness. A student suggested a "shyness clinic" and this was brought to fruition in 1975. ("To me this is more important than the legacy of the SPE.") He was also increasingly interested in "time perspective", how our sense of time gets distorted. Other notions, such as that of hedonism vs. the "future-oriented" life style, also have greatly influenced him. He noted that in Southern Italy, as opposed to the North, there is no vocabulary word for "will be". "So of course they are present-hedonistic [oriented]" He's also paying attention to the challenge of "curing" PTSD, and use of "positive framing".

Returning to the theme of how it is that good people end up doing evil things, Zimbardo commented, "We know there are 'bad apples'. But there are also good apples thrown into barrels of bad apples... [which] creates and maintains these situations." There are 3 levels of consideration - the individual disposition, the situation, and the interaction. "Let us celebrate the few people who resist."

And with that, Zimbardo ended by presenting his newest project, Heroic Imagination. He sees 2 types of evil: 1) the evil of action; and 2) the evil of inaction. There are 3 parties involved, typically, as with the bully, the person being bullied, and "all of us who look the other way". He sees 'heroism' as something which can be promoted, and he has a model for this:

Zimbardo outlined some of the working goals of his Heroic Imagination Project (on which he would be speaking about the next day, with fellow advocate Frank Farley) and presented some of what is known about heroes while also noting how very little research actually exists today.

Zimbardo's goal, he said, is "to inspire a culture of integrity rather than a culture of complicity".

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2008 Convention Highlights:

Grand Theft Childhood | Opening | Malcolm Gladwell | College Success, Love, Hate, More | My Life With Asperger's
My Space, You Tube, Psychotherapy, Relationships... | Aaron T. Beck - 2008 | The Mind and Brain of Voters

2009 Convention Highlights:
Internet: Pathway for Networking, Connecting, and Addiction | Opening | Virtual Psychology & Therapy | Q&A with Zimbardo
Seligman: Positive Education | Future of Internet Media | Sex, Love, & Psychology | How Dogs Think

2010 Convention Highlights:
Online Support Groups & Applications | Evidence & Ethical Practice | Opening Ceremony | Sir Michael Rutter: Resilience
Group Memory | Psychology in the Digital Age | Steven Hayes: What Psychotherapists Have that the World Needs Now

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