A classic study on human nature was called into question after an expose pointed to scientific misconduct and lies from top researchers conducting the experiment. The Stanford prison experiment implies that normal people are so affected by the roles they are placed in, those placed in power over others automatically abuse that power and those subjected to the abuse fall into submission.

Organized in the 1970s by Stanford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo, the study involved two groups of nine volunteers from Stanford’s student population randomly assigned the role of either prisoner or guard. Each student was paid for his or her participation. The published results indicated that participants had organically assumed and internalized their roles, leading guards to psychologically abuse and harass the prisoners. The latter were reported to be so affected by harassment that one of them had a now-famous emotional breakdown that led him to scream “I’m burning up inside.” Two quit the study early, forfeiting their pay. Originally planned to last two weeks, the experiment was cut short after only six days due to concerns from a non-participating student who was dating Zimbardo at the time.

By jraffin. CC0 Creative Commons.


Zimbardo’s study attracted significant media attention and to this date has inspired a documentary, a movie and a best-selling book. However, the study also raised significant concerns about its methodological validity, which have only built up over time. The recent expose by Ben Blum includes interviews with members of both groups, guards and prisoners. The guards indicated that they were coached to act sadistically prior to the experiment and the prisoners explained that they were acting to help the experiment succeed.

It was claimed that guards were coached a day before the experiment began by Zimbardo’s undergraduate student, David Jaffe, on how to behave and given several ideas on how to harass prisoners. During the experiment, Jaffe allegedly also corrected students who were not being sadistic enough according to his expectations. Furthermore, the student who reportedly broke down, Douglas Korpi, referred to his breakdown as a performance. “It was just a job,” he told Blum. “If you listen to the tape, you can hear it in my voice: I have a great job. I get to yell and scream and act all hysterical. I get to act like a prisoner. I was being a good employee. It was a great time.”

Attempts to replicate the study were met with failure but researchers claimed that Zimbardo himself tried to keep these studies under wraps. While the study is now a key part of the psychology syllabus, the expose is leading to calls for the study’s removal from textbooks. This is just the latest in psychology’s recent replication crisis, a phenomenon leading psychologists to reevaluate their perspective of human behavior and how they teach it to students.

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