One of social psychology’s most famous studies is now a dramatic film. “The Stanford Prison Experiment” debuted at the annual Sundance Film Festival for
independent and documentary films, held Jan. 22–Feb. 1 in
Park City, Utah. The film won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature
Film Prize, a $20,000 award presented by the Alfred P. Sloan
Foundation to honor a movie about science. The film also
earned the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award.
The movie stars Billy Crudup as social psychologist Philip
Zimbardo, PhD, who conducted the study in August 1971 in
the basement of the Stanford University psychology building
to simulate the conditions of prison and examine the power
of social situations over individual personality. Zimbardo,
who was involved with the script and visited the movie set in
Burbank, California, says the movie stays close to the events
and details of the study. The experiment was to have lasted
two weeks, but ended after just six days due to the emotional
abuse by the students assigned as guards and the distress of the
students assigned as prisoners.
“There is nothing in the film that didn’t happen in the study,
and in fact there are many things in the study they didn’t get into
the film,” Zimbardo says. “The original had even more drama.”
With the exception of Zimbardo and his then-girlfriend
and now wife, Christina Maslach Zimbardo, PhD, played by
Olivia Thirby, the movie version alters the names of everyone
else involved in the study. Zimbardo had recruited 24 male
college students through a newspaper advertisement to serve
as prisoners and guards; two graduate students and one
undergraduate student helped with the research. Zimbardo also
enlisted prison consultants and Palo Alto law enforcement to
help with the faux arrests at the beginning of the study.
While the study has been widely criticized for ethical and
validity concerns — including that participants were purposely
dramatizing the roles assigned to them — Zimbardo says he
hopes that having the study back in the public eye will spur
more interest in prison reform. “I would like to try to use the
notoriety of the study in a positive way,” he says.
One way he has already done that is through the Heroic
Imagination Project, a nonprofit organization he founded that
promotes using social psychology research to teach people ways to
resist bullying and oppression and to encourage acts of heroism.
Movie producers first approached Zimbardo about a
dramatic film about the study 35 years ago. A script for the
movie circulated among various movie studios for several
decades, with a variety of actors and directors attached,
including Leonardo DiCaprio as a participant and Benicio del
Toro as Zimbardo. When Crudup was cast, Zimbardo met with
him on set to share his experience running the study.
“I told him he needed to wave his hands around a bit more
to portray an Italian,” Zimbardo says.
Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez says he hopes that the film
inspires people to learn more about the experiment and its
relevance to modern debates about abuse of authority. “I hope
it incites conversation, arguments, concerns … about how we
act as humans, and doesn’t just show a singular ‘good guy/bad
guy’ point of view.”
Another psychology-centric film, “Experimenter,” also
debuted at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. That film details
the work of now-deceased social psychologist Stanley Milgram,
who attended James Monroe High School with Zimbardo in
New York City. “Experimenter” stars Peter Sarsgaard as Stanley
Milgram and Winona Ryder as Milgram’s wife, Sasha.
“The Stanford Prison Experiment” is slated to appear in
theaters later this year. n
on the silver screen
A movie on the Stanford Prison Experiment won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize at its debut at
the Sundance Film Festival.
By Jamie Chamberlin • Monitor staff