The Stanford Prison Experiment: A Look Back with Psychologist Dr. Phil Zimbardo

Welcome to Remarkable People.

Have you ever wondered why good people can do bad things? Maybe it’s not that we all have badness in us, but that circumstances and surroundings exert such pressure that resistance is futile.

This week I interview Dr. Philip Zimbardo, the Stanford psychology professor who conducted the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. He explains what happened in the experiment, why he had to cut it short, and what lessons we can apply from the experiment to modern-day occurrences such as the Abu Ghraib prison and the treatment of people by ICE. Zimbardo also explains how to avoid sliding down the slippery slope to evil.

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The Real Lesson of the Stanford Prison Experiment

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The Stanford Prison Experiment: A Look Back with Psychologist Dr. Phil Zimbardo

Guy Kawasaki: Hello, this is Guy Kawasaki. Welcome to Remarkable People. In this episode, I’m interviewing Dr. Phil Zimbardo, professor emeritus of Stanford University. Zimbardo and I go back a long way to the mid-seventies when I took Psychology 1 from him. This was one of the best classes at Stanford. Zimbardo was a dynamic speaker, and he addressed a broad range of social psychological phenomena. Zimbardo, of course, is perhaps most well-known for The Stanford Prison Experiment. This is the short-lived simulation where he and his graduate students turned the basement of the psychology department into a mock prison.

Prisoners: Prisoner 819 did a bad thing. Prisoner 819 did a bad thing. Prisoner 819 did a bad thing.

Guy Kawasaki: You know what made him end the experiment early? Keep listening, and you’ll find out. Zimbardo has retired from teaching at Stanford but is still applying psychology to improve people’s lives. In 2012, the American Psychological Association awarded him the gold medal for lifetime achievement.

Guy Kawasaki: I’m Guy Kawasaki. This is Remarkable People. And now here’s Dr. Phil Zimbardo.

Dr. Zimbardo: My background is I was born in New York City 86 years ago in the Bronx, New York, on March 23rd, 1933. So my family were Sicilian immigrants on my grandmother and grandfather’s side. So I am 100% Sicilian. I grew up in poverty, and my parents were uneducated. They literally did not even go to high school. So I was the first person in my family to go to college and then graduate, and graduate from Yale. And my whole education from kindergarten through graduate school, I didn’t pay a single penny of tuition, which current parents would go crazy because now first grade is like ten or twenty thousand dollars in a private school. But it was clear to me that education was the key to success, that is, the only way I could get out of poverty. And the only way you get out of poverty is you become a famous athlete, but that’s maybe a half of a percent of all the people in the world, or you become educated.

Dr. Zimbardo: And so I thought it’s going to be easier. I love sports, and I was good at baseball, softball and basketball, and track. I was actually a track star, which is a problem now because I could hardly walk. I have bad knees. I was the captain of the track team at Brooklyn College, and I ran the quarter-mile and anchored the relay, which made me happy in those days.

Dr. Zimbardo: I became a psychologist because I was really curious about race relations. Growing up in the Bronx in the mid-forties after the Second World War, black soldiers were coming back to the South, and they didn’t want to live in a place that still had prejudice, so they came North. Some of them went to Harlem in Manhattan, and some of them came to the South Bronx where I live. And at the same time in Puerto Rico, there was a sugar crop failure, and the governor of Puerto Rico gave everyone who wanted a one-way ticket to the United States.

Dr. Zimbardo: And again, some of them went to Harlem, and some of them came to South Bronx. And what happened was here were these immigrants coming together in limited housing, limited work situation, and then competing, competing unfortunately for the lowest-level job.

Dr. Zimbardo: And then at the same time, early on in the Forties heroin hit the Bronx. It was the start of drugs, and now if you have drugs, the gangs that used to be friendly, athletic gangs now had guns to protect their turf and it became really dangerous. So I studied the dynamics of prejudice and assimilation between blacks and Puerto Ricans in the Bronx. And it was my first publication in 1963 as an undergraduate, and that started me on a journey of publishing.

Guy Kawasaki: Everybody wants to talk about the prison experiment, so let’s just get that over with, okay?
Dr. Zimbardo: Yeah.
Guy Kawasaki: What was the hypothesis there?

Dr. Zimbardo: Oh, the Stanford prison study was really a demonstration. It was not a traditional experiment. So let’s put that up front. And so, in a traditional psychology experiment, you have a hypothesis about what you think would be the relationship between two or more variables. The prison study was really an exploration of what happens when you put good people in a bad place. And essentially it really grew out of my experience in the South Bronx where I and other kids were good kids and we were surrounded by evil. I mean, a guy’s trying to get us to carry drugs from one corner to another corner for money and to do bad things. So the prison study was simply a demonstration of what happens when you put good people, and these were college students from all over the United States who had just finished summer school at Berkeley and Stanford in mid-August 1971, what happens when you put them in a prison-like environment?

Dr. Zimbardo: So we tried to physically create, simulate a prison in the basement of Jordan Hall, which is the psychology department, meaning we took the doors off offices and we put a new door with cell doors, with prison bars. And the good thing about it having been in the basement was there were no clocks, there were no windows, so you couldn’t tell the time of day or night. And there was only one way in or out of basement. So it was easy to minimize prisoners trying to escape. So we began by simply putting an ad in the Palo Alto Times, “Wanted: college students for study of prison life,” it will go for one to two weeks. And the reason they did it was that they got 15 bucks a day. In 1971 that was pretty good. But see, but it also meant, the 1970s all colleges began after Labor Day. We knew they all had two weeks free from the ending of summer school at UC California Berkeley or Stanford, and before they started school.

Dr. Zimbardo: So we put the ad in the paper, seventy-five people answered it, we interviewed them, we gave them personality tests, and we picked two dozen who were the most normal, most psychologically and physically healthy at that time. And then, we randomly assigned them. So that what makes it “an experiment,” that is, almost like a flip of the coin, one is a guard, one is a prisoner. So there were twelve guards and twelve prisoners, to begin with. Because of the limitations of space, there were three prisoners in each of three cells. That means there were nine prisoners, and then we had three guards and each of three eight hour shifts, morning, afternoon, and evening shifts.

Dr. Zimbardo: And then we had backup guards and backup prisoners in case they needed to fill in the role.
Dr. Zimbardo: What made the study powerful from from day one, which was Sunday, August 14th, 1971, is I had arranged with the chief of police, Captain Zurcher, to release one squad car with two police officers Sunday morning, when Palo Alto is sleeping or in church, to make mock arrests of the kids who are about to play prisoners. And that that created a great dynamic. And also we filmed it.

Dr. Zimbardo: I later did a video documentary called Quiet Rage at The Stanford Prison Experiment.

And what we did the day before we had the boys who were playing the role of guards come down and we went to the Army-Navy store, and they picked out their uniforms. So we wanted them to be military-like uniforms and symbols of power, billy clubs, whistles, handcuffs.

Dr. Zimbardo: And then the idea I got from the movie Cool Hand Luke with Paul Newman was silver reflecting sunglasses. That was a theme in that movie so nobody could see your eyes. So essentially, it was dehumanizing. So all the guards and me and my staff, and I had two graduate students, Craig Haney and Curt Banks and one undergraduate who had been in my class, David Chaffey. So whenever we were in contact with the prisoners, we all had to wear those sunglasses. The police arrested them at their home or in places we had told them to wait, and they simply said, “You’re wanted for violation of Penal Code 459 PC, armed robbery or breaking and entering.”

The Stanford Prison Experiment: A Look Back with Psychologist Dr. Phil Zimbardo

Dr. Zimbardo: And they read them their Miranda rights, they put them in a squad car with sirens wailing and brought them to the Palo Alto Jail, fingerprinted them, booked them and actually put them in a jail cell, blindfolded them, and then my graduate students came, took them, brought them to our jail, and then stripped them naked and then took the blindfold off and now they were ready to be in prison.

Guy Kawasaki: Were they expecting the mock arrest?

Dr. Zimbardo: Not at all, no, no. It was a total surprise. And now the reason the police agreed to do it was shortly before, in the spring of ’71, Stanford students, like students everywhere, were protesting the Vietnam War, which was going endlessly, endlessly. And in some cases at Stanford, the protests became violent. They were breaking library windows. There was actually a Stanford professor and several others who actually were found to have explosives in their homes. The president at that time, he was a new president, called the police onto the campus. So there were physical confrontations between the police and the students that got fairly violent. The chief of police at that time got replaced with this Captain Zurcher; he was new. And the president of the university, who was just there one year, [Rice] was asked to step down. I guess maybe he was in chemistry or something. So he just became a professor.

Dr. Zimbardo: So, I used the occasion to psychologically diffuse the tension between town and gown. That is, I invited policemen to come and have dinner in the dorms. I had been a faculty resident in Cedro, and then also I had arranged to have students ride around in police cars. And having done that, the new captain was very pleased and invited me to meet with him and thanked me for doing that. And then I said, “Hey, in return, could you do me this favor? We’re going to do this experiment, and could you arrange to have a squad car pick them up?” And he agreed. It just meant the study began in a dramatic, dynamic way, which would have been different if they simply came down and said, “I’m here for the experiment,” you sign it. They got to the basement feeling like “I was a prisoner.”

Dr. Zimbardo: And then the study, it went on. Initially, the guards felt awkward in their uniforms. Nobody, I should say, nobody wanted to be a guard because, again, all students everywhere are anti-police. I mean, because the police were seen as supporters of the system. So they felt awkward.

Dr. Zimbardo: I mean, in fact, there is a Hollywood movie which debuted in 2015 called The Stanford Prison Experiment directed by Kyle Alvarez, a really good movie. And it begins with interviews of each participant, saying, “You want to be a prisoner or guard?” And everybody said, “I don’t want to be a guard. Nobody likes guards, you know, guards are pigs.” And that’s actually what happened in our interviews.

Dr. Zimbardo: But curiously, very quickly, they got into the role, meaning they enjoyed the power that’s inherent in the role of a guard. And then what they started to do is push the prisoners in more and more extreme ways. Obviously, when you begin, you’ve got to have the prisoners do something. And so they did pushups and jumping jacks and other things. But then that gets boring. And curiously boredom is a major motivation of evil because now you’re bored and you got eight hours to kill, especially the ones who came in at night. I mean, so you got eight hours, you come in at 10 o’clock you got, you got to kill time till 6:00 AM, and so they became creatively evil.

Dr. Zimbardo: Once you put a uniform on and are given a role, I mean, a job, saying, “Your job is to keep these people in line,” then you’re certainly not the same person that you were in street clothes and in a different role. You really become that person; once you put on that khaki uniform, you put on the glasses, you take the nightstick, and you act the part.

Dr. Zimbardo: They had to think of new things to do each day, which were interesting, which were exciting for them. And the only limitation I put on, I played the role of superintendent of the prison, which was a mistake. I should have been only the researcher and get someone else to play that role. Because if you’re a superintendent in the prison, your main concerns are the guards and the institution and not the prisoners. And so the prisoners began to have emotional breakdowns in 36 hours. At the end of 36 hours, a prisoner had an emotional breakdown, screaming irrationally, yelling. He was prisoner 8612, and we had to release him, and then he became a model of how you get out, and each day thereafter another prisoner had a breakdown.

Dr. Zimbardo: Because everybody knew it was an experiment, an experiment not in a prison, in the basement of the psychology department, a basement where everybody is playing games. “I’m a prisoner, you’ll be the guard.” But it transcended that reality. It became a psychological prison run by psychologists, not by the state.
Participant: I didn’t see where it was really harmful. It was degrading. And that was part of my particular little experiment to see how I could-

Interviewer: Your particular little experiment-
Dr. Zimbardo: And then if I-
Interviewer: Why don’t you tell me about that.

Dr. Zimbardo: Yeah, I was running little experiments of my own.
Interviewer: Tell me about your little experiments. I’m curious.

Dr. Zimbardo: Okay. I wanted to see just what kind of verbal abuse that people can take before they start objecting, before they start lashing back, under the circumstances. And it surprised me that no one said anything to stop me. No one, no one said, “Cremin, you can’t say those things to me. Those things are sick.” Nobody said that. They just accepted what I said. I said, “Go tell that man to the face he’s the scum of the earth.” And they’d do it without question. They’d do pushups without question. They’d sit in the hole, they’d abuse each other. And here they’re supposed to be together as a unit in jail, but here they’re abusing each other because I requested them to, and no one questioned my authority at all. And it really shocked me. Why didn’t people…. when I started to abuse people, I started to get so profane that… and still, people didn’t say anything.

Dr. Zimbardo: We did all the things that you would have in a real prison. We had visitors days. We had parole board hearings. We had visitors by a Catholic priest who had been a prison chaplain. So we had all of those things. I mean, so each day lots of stuff was happening. And the only thing we insisted on, and we say it over and… No physical force, and that the guards were not allowed to hit the prisoners with their club. It was all symbolic because then it was worried somebody would seriously get hurt. But they use psychological force. And so at the end of six days, I had to terminate this study because it was out of control. I’m saying each day, each night, the guards were thinking of something more and more cruel and horrendous. So, for example, on the fifth night, the guard said, “Okay, I’m going to play a game. We’re going to play camel game. You prisoners bend over, you’re female camels. You guys are male camels. Get behind them and hump them, and they’re like, “Oh we hump.”

Dr. Zimbardo: And they actually were simulating sodomy, after five days in The Stanford Prison Experiment. Now jump ahead to 2004, Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq where American prison guards had prisoners simulating fellatio, but that was within three months. So there are many parallels between what happened in the Stanford prison study, which was a fake experiment and this real experiment in Abu Ghraib. And curiously, I became an expert witness, one of the guards there, Chip Frederick. And my defense was that everything I found out about him, he was a really good guy, a good father, good husband, good soldier, until he went down to that basement on 12-hour shifts, never left the prison because it was dangerous. So when they finished a 12-hour shift, they slept in a different cell in a different part of the prison.

Dr. Zimbardo: So I just said, “What he did was a function of the power of the situation that overwhelmed his humanity.” And curiously, it’s one of the only times I know of where a psychological defense had a legal consequence, positive. Originally the military were going to punish him with 15 years hard labor in prison. And I got his sentence reduced to four years. So that’s a big victory, in quotes, for psychology. And so we ended the study on August 19th, 1971.

Guy Kawasaki: The rumor, or what I’ve read, says that you had to be told by your then-girlfriend to stop this.
Dr. Zimbardo: Oh yeah.
Guy Kawasaki: Even you got into the role of superintendent?

Dr. Zimbardo: Yeah. That’s the other thing. That’s right. When I say, “We ended it,” she made me end it. Christina Maslach, who had been a graduate student of mine, who had graduated Stanford with a PhD in psychology, had just gotten a job at Berkeley in June, and we were planning to move in together. And she came down on Thursday night, and she said, “How about we go to dinner after the end of the night shift?” And she comes down and what she sees is the guards lining up the prisoners, putting bags over their head, chaining their legs one to another, yelling, cursing, screaming, pushing them down. And then this is the last time they could go to the toilet. After that, they had to urinate or defecate in buckets in their cell, which they hated to do because it smelled terrible. But they’re cursing at them and yelling.

Dr. Zimbardo: And I said, “Oh, look at this. Isn’t this exciting? Look at the dynamics of the situation, after only four days. Look what you’re seeing.” And she said, “I can’t look at it. It’s horrible.” So she ran out and I ran after her. And we’re now in the courtyard in front of Jordan Hall, we’re having this huge argument. And I’m talking about the psychology of dehumanization, and she’s talking about that the situation has changed me, that I am known to be a caring, loving professor who loves students, students love him and now “you’re allowing this terrible thing to happen.” Then she said, “If this is the real you, I don’t think I want to continue our relationship.” And that was the bam, punch in the face turning point. I said, “Oh my God, you’re right. I have to end this study.”

Dr. Zimbardo: I didn’t know what’s gotten into me because that’s what I’m saying, I should have not played the role of superintendent because now what was important was the continuity of my institution, not the validity of the experiment, because we could have ended after the second prisoner broke down, because then we proved our point. So I ended the next day.

Guy Kawasaki: So everybody listening to this is now saying, “I don’t know about those guys in the 1970s, but I would never get carried away. I would never accept the role of prisoner. I would not accept the role of a guard for sure.” To which you say…

Dr. Zimbardo: You did it for the money. I mean, the point is right now, if I said, “I’ll give you $50 a day to play-act. We’re doing a drama. You know, in a drama, I’m the director, and you’re the actors. If you don’t want to act, then go away.” Some people did. Not everybody of the 75 people who came down that after we interviewed them, we said, “Here’s what we want to do.” Some of them said, “No, I’d rather not.” So right now I’m saying if I raised the ante and you needed money and I say, “We want you to play a role for a week,” I’m sure I could get [crosstalk 00:21:34].

Guy Kawasaki: I believe that. But I think what my point was that I think people are saying that “yes, maybe those people became guards and overzealous, but I would not be.”
Dr. Zimbardo: Well, [crosstalk 00:21:46].

Guy Kawasaki: I think your point is everybody would be.
Dr. Zimbardo: Again, you don’t know what you would do in a totally new situation. That’s the whole point is you’ve never been in that situation, and you’d like to think “I would take the good me into all these situation.” This is what soldiers say before they go into battle, and then you get in battle, and suddenly you’re killing, you’re raping, you’re doing a murderous thing. One of the point in the prison study is how well do you really know yourself other than in your regular life you have the freedom to choose situations that are comfortable, that don’t challenge you, that you choose friends who are similar to you, you rarely connect with people of even different religions, different ethnicities, different backgrounds. So you know about yourself from a very limited amount of information.

Guy Kawasaki: Other than being thrust into these roles, how can one know? Or you really don’t know?

Dr. Zimbardo: No, you don’t know until you’re playing a role, I mean, until you’re in that situation. And what we’re saying is the prison study should speed along to say “under these circumstances, I could do something which is contrary to my beliefs, my conscience, my wellbeing.”

Guy Kawasaki: Now, let’s fast-forward to now. So this has enormous implications on ICE.
Dr. Zimbardo: Yeah.

Guy Kawasaki: Probably many of those ICE guards are okay people. They’re good apples, but…

Dr. Zimbardo: Yeah. Yeah. But again, it’s a nice guy. It’s a nice transition because there’ve been lots of studies, for example, of Nazi SS guards who were good guys before they got into the setting, and now you’re in the setting, and you become part of it. You’re in a uniform like everyone else. And the head of the unit says, “Here are the rules. Here’s what we do. Here’s what you’re getting paid for. Here’s your job. And if you don’t do it right, we get rid of you, get somebody to replace you.” And so again, with these ICE officers, their job is to round up aliens, immigrants, and send them back where they came from. And they’re doing it with the support of the president of the United States. They’re doing it with the support of everybody around them. And typically, they don’t physically beat up the prisoners. All they have to do is handcuff them. Sometimes the prisoners rebel, they get to push them down on the ground. So it’s not even as bad as in my study where the guards toward the end were physically harming the prisoners.

Guy Kawasaki: In your study, they physically harmed?

Dr. Zimbardo: At the 36th hour, the prisoners rebelled on the second day. And the guards had to physically overwhelm them. And they strip them naked. And then after that, I said, “No physical force.” But they did, I mean, their initial impulse was, “There are twelve guards and nine prisoners. We have to physically dominate them.” So, but I think with the ICE officers, it’s not physical domination. They have a gun, they have tear gas, they have handcuffs, and their job is round these people up who are lawbreakers and send them back where they came from. So they develop a mentality that these others are non-acceptable human beings.

Guy Kawasaki: We’re talking about a slippery slope of evil.

Dr. Zimbardo: Right.
Guy Kawasaki: Basically. And how do you reverse that? How do you stop that?

Dr. Zimbardo: It’s avoiding that first step. So a parallel set of research was done earlier than mine by Stanley Milgram. He was at Yale University and he did the famous studies on blind obedience to authority. And I won’t go through in great detail, but essentially in those studies, two men came to the lab and in authority said, “We want to see how we can improve people’s memory. There’s a lot of research shows if we reward the right answers, people improve. We want to see what happens if you punish wrong answers. And so one of you is the teacher, one of you is the learner. And the teacher gets the materials, gives it to learner. When the learner gets it wrong, you give him a shock.

Dr. Zimbardo: Now the critical thing is there’s a big shock box starting with 15 volts and increasing in 15-volt increments, 15, 30, 45. But then it up to 100, and 200, and 300, and at the end of the line it’s 450, triple X. And the question is “who would do it?” Now, I mean who would go all the way? When Milgram, before he started his study, he described it in great detail more than I’m doing it with you, and he said, “What percent of all American citizens would go all the way?”

Dr. Zimbardo: There were forty psychiatrists, and their average was 1% because they said: “that’s psychopathic and only 1% of any population is psychopath.” They were wrong. It was 65, two of every three of hundreds and hundreds of people in the study. And these were men, middle-age men, 20 to 50 and even in one group of women were the same. Two of every three went all the way. Now, I made a detour back to your question, “What do you do at the beginning?” You don’t press the first button. When you press the first button, you’re on that slippery slope of evil, because you look at the panel, why would they make this box with all these numbers, with all these different voltages, if they didn’t expect somebody to go there?

Dr. Zimbardo: So the key is, soon as you see the first thing, if you press it and nothing happens, you say, “I quit.” I asked Milgram, “How many people of the thousand you tested refused to press the first button?” Zero. No one. Because it was no big deal. But the point is, you’re an adult, you look at the box and say, “Why would they make this if they didn’t expect some people to go all the…” and I never want to be in that situation. So partly it’s developing a foresight to look at a situation and step back before you enter it before you cross that line, and then say, “What could be the worst thing that could happen in this situation to me, to other people? What’s the worst thing I could end up doing that I will be sorry for later on?” And so it’s anticipating negative consequences of your behavior and saying, Boy Scout motto, “be prepared,” be prepared in this case for the worst and therefore don’t do it.

Guy Kawasaki: But we just said that zero of a thousand could do that.

Dr. Zimbardo: See, I’m saying the important thing now is to train people. You show them the Milgram study and say, “What would you do? What should you do?” And you show them The Stanford Prison Experiment. “If you were a guard, what would you do? You could have collected your money.” Nobody told them all you had to do was maintain law and order and see the prisoners don’t escape. That’s the bottom line, you know? So you didn’t have to do any of those other things. Even though you taught, “this is what guards do.” So essentially, it’s rewriting the script. You say, “when I’m in the study, I’m not using your script, I’m using my script.”

Guy Kawasaki: So are you saying that there’s evil in all of us, or are you saying that there’s a lack of good? I mean what-

Dr. Zimbardo: No, I’d like to say there are equal parts of good and evil, and they come out depending on the situation. I mean, if I put you in a Boy Scout camp and I say, “Here’s our Boy Scout motto, and do good helping other people.” And in fact, the transition now is, in the last chapter of The Lucifer Effect, if you put good people in a bad situation and they become corrupted, what happens if you put ordinary people in a good situation? And the idea is I believe we could make them not only become good but make them be everyday heroes.

Guy Kawasaki: What do you want your legacy to be?
Dr. Zimbardo: “He made the world better by creating a new generation of youth dedicated to helping others in need.” That I would be really happy for. And “he built this on the platform of ye olde Stanford Prison Experiment”.

Guy Kawasaki: So now you know that the reason Zimbardo stopped the experiment was because his girlfriend made him do it. If you want to help Zimbardo empower the next generation of heroes, check out the Heroic Imagination Project at I’m Guy Kawasaki, and this was the Remarkable People podcast. This podcast was produced by Jeff, “Some things need to be seen to be believed” Sieh. Special thanks to Peg Fitzpatrick. If you subscribe to Remarkable People, Peg probably had something to do with it.

In the next episode, I’m interviewing one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, Stephen Wolfram, physicist, entrepreneur, and the youngest winner of the MacArthur Award. This is Remarkable People.

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