Lacks the moral outrage of the real experiment

by Martin Hafer

In 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo conducted a famous psychological study which has been cited innumerable times since as a case of experimenter misconduct and the abuse of participants. This film is a dramatization of the study and the events surrounding it.

It begins with Dr. Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) and his research assistants interviewing potential subjects for a study for which the participants will be paid $15 a day. What exactly it is, these subjects have little idea but the experiment was to simulate a prison environment and see the effect it would have on the participants–both those who were chosen to be guards as well as those chosen to be prisoners. In most every way, Zimbardo and his team tried to replicate a prison environment in the basement of one of the buildings at Stanford University–including having fake police arrest the designated prisoners and bring them to this mock prison. Unfortunately, very soon after the study began, psychological and physical damage occurred to the participants…yet Zimbardo did not discontinue the study. Even after guards began manhandling the prisoners and severely degrading them, the experiment continued for a hellish week. While Zimbardo claimed that the study was being done to give insight into human behavior, his lack of objectivity, the school’s lack of oversight and unethical treatment of the subjects is the reason that the study became so famous. Oddly, however, such comment about the study is almost completely missing…a strange omission to say the least.

The Stanford Prison Experiment
Directed by
Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Billy Crudup
Release Date
17 July 2015
Martin’s Grade: B

I am an unusual film reviewer because I was a practicing psychotherapist as well as a teacher who taught history and psychology. So, I probably would get more out of this movie than the average viewer and I am very familiar with the experiment. The film does a great job of re-creating the study and the time period. Folks looked and dressed like folks from 1971 and Crudup looked reasonably close to Zimbardo. I appreciated how the filmmakers tried hard to replicate the events and times during which it was made. What it also did was re-create the horrors and the film was, at times, rather disturbing…even though this occurred several decades ago. But in the film, after Zimbardo finally pulls the plug on the study, the film pretty much ends. There’s a short blurb at the end that Zimbardo and his team determined that no lasting damage was done to the subjects…though this is a completely self-serving statement and was not established scientifically. As a result, the film emphasizes what folks thought they learned about prison environments and obedience…but not how the study ended up horrifying many professionals within the field. This is a huge problem and up until the inexplicable ending, I would have scored this film much higher. Incidentally, the bonus features on the DVD seems to indicate that indeed the end did justify the means in this bizarre study.

So is this a film for you? Maybe. It is very well constructed and the acting is very realistic. I am not sure, however, that the average viewer would want to watch the study unfolding as it is unpleasant–but it certainly is thought-provoking and interesting. I assume that this film could be effectively used by psychology programs to generate discussions about ethics and responsibility. By the way, what’s allowed and not allowed in experiments on American campuses has changed significantly since 1971…much of it the result of studies run amok such as this one!