One of the most famous and influential psychology studies of all time was based on lies and fakery, a new exposé reveals.
The Stanford prison experiment purported to show we are all naturally inclined to abuse positions of power – after volunteers randomly assigned to act as prison guards began abusing volunteer inmates in a mock prison.
But now a report from author and scientist Dr Ben Blum claims the research was all a sham. It points to recordings found in archives at Stanford University which show the study’s author Professor Philip Zimbardo encouraged guards to treat inmates poorly.
Also, one volunteer prisoner has now admitted to faking a fit of madness that the study reported was driven by the prison’s brutal conditions.
The revelations have sent scientists into uproar, with some calling for the experiment and its findings to be wiped from psychology textbooks worldwide.
The experiment has been cited in many scientific textbooks, and is the subject of a number of documentaries, television series and even a feature-length film.
Participants in the study, all Stanford University students recruited through a newspaper advert, were assigned to be inmates or guards in a fake prison in a basement at the institution.
Prisoners were treated as second class citizens – they were made to wear women’s clothing, not allowed to wear underwear and were only referred to by a number.
One inmate reportedly broke out in a psychosomatic rash upon finding his ‘parole’ had been turned down, while another famously suffered a breakdown in his cell, screaming ‘I’m burning up inside!’
Guards were reportedly so cruel to inmates that the experiment had to be cut short after just six days of its planned two-week duration.
The study and its authors have been cited for decades as proof that cruelty is driven by circumstance.
‘The Stanford Prison Experiment is often used to teach the lesson that our behaviour is profoundly affected by the social roles and situations in which we find ourselves,’ Dr Blum wrote in a report posted to Medium.
‘But its deeper, more disturbing implication is that we all have a wellspring of potential sadism lurking within us, waiting to be tapped by circumstance.’
Dr Blum, who earned his PhD in computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, looked into previously unpublished recordings of Professor Zimbardo and interviewed some of the psychologist’s participants.
He found that one of the study’s most famous moments, in which a 22-year-old inmate broke down in distress at his treatment in the prison, was faked.
Student Douglas Korpi, now 57, admitted he feigned a psychotic breakdown because he wanted to quit the experiment to study for his exams.
‘Anybody who is a clinician would know that I was faking,’ he told Blum.
‘If you listen to the tape, it’s not subtle. I’m not that good at acting. I mean, I think I do a fairly good job, but I’m more hysterical than psychotic.’
Kopri added that he largely enjoyed the experiment and did not feel threatened because he know the guards weren’t allowed to harm him.
‘There were no repercussions. We knew [the guards] couldn’t hurt us, they couldn’t hit us. They were white college kids like us, so it was a very safe situation,’ he said.
‘It was a job…I was being a good employee. It was a great time.’
Dr Blum also reveals that Professor Zimbardo told guards to rile up prisoners, suggesting their cruelty did not bloom naturally from their position of power.
‘We cannot physically abuse or torture them,’ Professor Zimbardo told them in a meeting before the experiment began, according to recordings.
‘We can create boredom. We can create a sense of frustration. We can create fear in them, to some degree… We have total power in the situation. They have none.’
One guard told Dr Blum that he pretended to be a sadist, and acted cruelly in a way that was later reported as an organic product of the power dynamics at play.
‘I took it as a kind of an improv exercise,’ he said.
‘I believed that I was doing what the researchers wanted me to do.’
The guard added that he later regretted treating inmates poorly, though Professor Zimbardo had thanked him on his way out of the test.
‘He made it a point to come and let me know what a great job I’d done,’ he said.
‘I actually felt like I had accomplished something good because I had contributed in some way to the understanding of human nature.’
Several attempts to replicate the Stanford prison experiment have failed to recreate its dramatic results, leading some scientists to suggest the study was faked.
The research presents little in the way of concrete data, largely relying on testimonies from those involved in the study.
Professor Zimbardo has admitted he was an active participants in the experiment rather than a neutral observer, meaning he exerted influence over its results.
He also handed the guards batons, which may have predisposed them to consider physical force as an acceptable means of enforcing good behaviour.
Scientists took to Twitter to denounce the Stanford prison experiment following Dr Blum’s recent revelations.
Professor Simine Vazire, a psychology researcher at the University of California, Davis, said she was ’embarrassed’ her field treated the study’s author as a hero.
‘We must stop celebrating this work. It’s anti-scientific. Get it out of textbooks,’ she wrote.
‘It’s also irresponsible in many other ways (socially, politically). I’m embarrassed that my field treated this work and this man as heroic.’
New York University scientist Jay Van Bavel pointed out that the falsified study has had far reaching influences.
He tweeted: ‘The Stanford Prison Experience – as it is presented in textbooks – presents human nature as naturally conforming to oppressive systems.
‘This is a lesson that extends well beyond prison systems and the field criminology – but it’s wrong.’