Stanford Prison Experiment Revisited

There is a website devoted to the infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, at which you can view a slide show and order a video of the episode. The originator of the experiment, Philip Zimbardo (whose Psych 101 course I took as a freshman), told the New York Times (also reprinted on the front page of today’s Ann Arbor News) that he was “not surprised” that the Iraq prisoner abuse occurred.

Although it’s obvious that Zimbardo isn’t a prison booster (indeed, his whole point is that prisons are by definition inhumane), using the aborted experiment for financial gain (especially when the experiment, originally supposed to last two weeks, had to be terminated after six days because of its effect on some of the subjects) seems to me kind of misguided. Not only that, the potential for his remarks to be taken out of context seems immense.

For instance, the crux of the Times article is not that prisons are inhumane and that the penal system needs to be examined, though Zimbardo is quoted as saying something to that effect, but that the Iraq prisoner abuse was no big deal, no significant failure, because these things happen in prisons all the time. That’s a great message to carry away from this whole sordid affair—that it’s just one more grisly event to which to numb ourselves and for which to make allowances and excuses.