Michael Haas on July 22nd, 2015

In 1961, Yale Psychology Professor Stanley Milgram sought to determine whether Adolf Eichmann’s claim that he was merely following orders was credible. He then began an experiment in which subjects for less than an hour were paid to punish someone in another room with electric shocks if they failed to answer a question correctly, not knowing that the person in the other room was not being shocked. Milgram later concluded, “The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.”

Ten years later, Stanford Psychology Philip Zimbardo got a grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research to study the causes of conflict between military guards and prisoners.

But these important facts are not mentioned when the film “The Stanford Prison Experiment” begins. Nor is there any mention of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1967.

Instead, filmviewers first view Zimbardo (played by Billy Crudup) and colleagues interviewing Stanford undergraduates who need some extra money before classes resume in the fall quarter to select among applicants to participate in a two-week “prison experiment” for $15 per day. Some are then randomly chosen either as guards or as prisoners. Rules of confinement are explained before the experiment, but the guards violate them during the experiment, inflicting extraordinary psychological and even some physical and sexual abuse on the prisoners. Although they believe that they are trying to make their prisoners obedient, the guards end up slave training.

Some prisoners are so devastated psychologically that they are released within a few days. The experiment itself is terminated on the sixth day, when Zimbardo concludes that he can no longer tolerate watching the abuse he watches from a surveillance camera on the monitor in his control room. Indeed, the main person who is experimented upon is Zimbardo himself for undertaking an experiment without apparent knowledge of Milgram’s experiment or of actual conditions in military prisons.

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