Saturday, September 22, 2007

"Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment"

(Updates added 4/30/2017)

Phil Zimbardo and colleagues' Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), though conducted and reported in the early 1970s, continues to stimulate vigorous discussion to this day. Here are some areas in which the SPE comes up today:

1. It is often discussed in conjunction with the Abu Ghraib prison-abuse scandal (2003-04) in Iraq.

2. The SPE sometimes serves as a focal point in larger debates over the person and the situation.

3. Empirical studies on specific aspects of the SPE itself continue to be conducted (e.g., the nature of individuals who would volunteer for a prison study as opposed to an ordinary study; Carnahan & McFarland, 2007).

4. A feature film, "The Stanford Prison Experiment," was released in 2015.

To honor the staying power of the SPE, I've written the following lyrics...


Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment
Lyrics by Alan Reifman
(May be sung to the tune of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," Lennon/McCartney)

It was back ’round 1970,
Phil Zimbardo did a test to see,
What kind of conduct would prevail,
From a made-up college-student jail,
Inmates and guards, a random split,
So real, they didn’t know what hit,
Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Exper’ment,


Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Exper’ment,
Life simulated in the hole*,
Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Exper’ment,
What happens when you play a role,
Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison, ’Bardo’s Stanford Prison,
Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Exper’ment,

The guards seemed to be normal,
They passed their pre-screening,
But once they got their billy clubs,
Their treatment became demeaning,
The study careening,

Chaos soon took over like a storm,
Conflict heightened and rebellions formed,
Guards struggled for the upper hand,
Pressure many inmates could not stand…

Back in the news with Abu Ghraib,
The study’s relevance has stayed,
Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Exper’ment…

*The term "the hole" appears to be slang specifically for solitary confinement, as opposed to prison in general. The word "hole" fits in so nicely with the rhyme scheme, so I hope everyone will extend me some artistic license.


The song basically presents the conventional situationist account of the SPE. College-student volunteers who "seemed to be normal" were assigned via "random split" to be either prisoners or guards. Prisoners and guards alike, upon assumption of their statuses ("what happens when you play a role" and, on the guards' part, "once they got their billy clubs"), then took on extreme and pathological forms of behavior. The guards, of course, became sadistic, and some of the prisoners experienced nervous breakdowns.

Further Reading

Carnahan, T. & McFarland, S. (2007). Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment: Could participant self-selection have led to the cruelty? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 603-614.

Haslam, S.A. & Reicher, S. (2007). Beyond the Banality of Evil: Three dynamics of an interactionist social psychology of tyranny. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 615-622.

[Discussion of these two articles on Psychology and Crime News.]

Stanford Prison Experiment website.

The Situationist blog. Discussion by Zimbardo and others on person X situation interaction, see postings from late July and early August 2007.

Zimbardo, P. (2007). The Lucifer Effect: Understanding how good people turn evil.New York: Random House. (Website)

Zimbardo, P.G., Maslach, C, & Haney, C. (2000). Reflections on the Stanford Prison Experiment: Genesis, transformations, consequences. In T. Blass (Ed.), Obedience to authority: Current perspectives on the Milgram paradigm (pp. 193-237). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. (Chapter in manuscript form)

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