Saturday, December 17, 2016

Film: The Stanford Prison Experiment (Kyle Patrick Alvarez, Director)

The Stanford Prison Experiment is a 2015 movie directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez. It is based on Philip Zimbardo's 1971 experiment where 20 college-aged subjects were divided into guards and inmates and simulated a prison in an unused campus building. The experiment is famous for exposing how easy it is for healthy individuals to become abusive and violent. While the movie promotes this as Zimbardo's conclusions, the movie also confirms points his critics made about the experiment, namely that Zimbardo's design and execution of the experiment had as much to do with its results as "human nature."

I particularly remember two scenes. The first is Zimbardo's orientation meeting with the guards, where he told them they were better than other people. In the interview process, all prospective subjects had expressed a preference to be an inmate.

The second scene occurred when Zimbardo and other researchers witnessed an example of abuse and debated the cause. Zimbardo ends the debate saying something like the difference between the guard and the inmate was a "coin-flip." The experimenters had used a coin to divide the subjects into guards and inmates.

I hope a similar experiment today wouldn't get past institutional review boards.

Zimbardo participated in this movie and promotes it at his website. He also promotes a 1-hour documentary on the experiment entitled Quiet Rage.

I've watched a 2001 German movie inspired by Zimbardo's experiment entitled Das Experiment. It was also good. Based on my fading memory, it was more entertaining, but it did not do as good a job as Alvarez's movie in bringing out the subtleties of human nature the experiment revealed.

Another movie in the same ballpark which I haven't watched is The Experiment (2010), directed by Paul T Scheuring.

A book I reviewed earlier discusses this experiment with regards to the courts martial of personnel involved in crimes at the Abu Ghraib USA military detention facility in Iraq.