The Stanford Prison Experiment

“Say, what’s the independent variable in this study?” I burst out into laughter and didn’t stop giggling for 2 minutes. Because the Stanford Prison Experiment might be many things, but none of those things even approximates science.

This is the sixth film treatment of The Experiment, I think, counting documentaries, and it’s easy to see why: It’s a compelling story of upper middle class white people who turn into the worst sort of authoritarians (and victims) in a matter of hours.

Or, maybe it’s not. The problem is, there is no independent variable, no control, not really much in the way of parameters. If you look at it this way, what you have is nine guys who are playacting at being powerless, and three guys who take turns in eight hour shifts tormenting them, playacting at being Strother Martin.

The ringleader actually said this in real life. They called him “John Wayne” but he was doing Strother Martin, maybe in True Grit or Liberty Valance. He suddenly develops a southern accent and sees what he can get away with.

And it turns out, that was quite a bit. And with eight-hour shifts with nothing to do but screw with a bunch of other guys’ heads, the real miracle is that nobody was killed.

The story is that Dr. Zimbardo, a psychologist (natch) at Stanford, puts together this experiment where he pays these mild-mannered college-age males $15/day for no apparent reason. I mean, seriously, there’s no reason given for the experiment, which he assures his girlfriend will be “boring”. But there’s no description of what it is he’s trying to figure out in the first place.

He assures us that just as his subjects got caught up in the experiment, so did he—so seductive are the trappings of power, and the…trappings of powerlessness, I guess.

Keep repeating, “It’s just a movie.” Because, really, it’s just a movie.

Billy Crudup (Public Enemies, Watchmen) sells it as the obsessed professor, as do the boys, all of whom are famous enough that you’ve seen them in bunches of stuff (like Me & Earl and Wallflower) but not so famous (and with ‘70s hair and clothing styles) that you immediately go, “That’s Shia Labeouf!” (Sad that I had to go there to think of someone “too famous” for a role like this.

Some of the changes from the real thing are interesting. In real life, the doctor’s girlfriend (played here by Olivia Thirby, whom I’ve quite liked in Dredd, 5 to 7, and Being Flynn) is the one who essentially ended the experiment by pointing out the ethical problems with it. Here she makes her big speech, but the doctor ends it a few hours later after a particularly humiliating incident.

I don’t know that really added anything to the drama. It might’ve been cooler to have them hashing them out while the incident was going on.

Another thing I thought funny: In the real experiment, they moved the “prison” to a different floor in anticipation of a possible “break”, but in the movie they didn’t. I presume this was budget constraints, but it might have been a desire to keep the sort of locked-up feel going. (I think they may have actually gone outside in the real experiment, too, which they didn’t here.) It might’ve been more interesting to see them move the prisoners about.

It works overall, though, and what actually happened is totes not important here.

One thing that felt cheesy—whether or not it reflects the reality—was that there were precisely two black people in the movie, both “behind the cameras” of the experiment. One was a Black Panther-esque militant with a huge chip on his shoulder and a desire to see the white boys punished, while the other was a “good black” who was the most bothered by the ethical implications. We were only short Morgan Freeman coming in and healing them all at the end with a soothing monologue.

Anyway, don’t take it too seriously: It’s a good vehicle for drama, mostly worthy of its 80%s RT scores. Or, I guess you could take it super seriously, and let its searing truths sear their way into your soul, leaving sear marks, as some critics seem to. De gusti.

But there’s more science in Ghostbusters.

Leave a Reply