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The Famous "Stanford Prison" and Yale "Obedience to Authority"/Shock Experiments

April 13, 2020

by John Spritzler

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Everybody has heard of Stanley Milgram's "obedience to authority" experiment in which SUPPOSEDLY (not really!) people blindly followed an authority and gave what they believed were lethal shocks to other people when told to do so. The mass media uses a false account of this experiment to try to persuade us that, basically, people suck, so real democracy isn't such a good idea after all.


The news media have dusted off two old but famous psychology experiments to give the Pogo theory (that "we have met the enemy and the enemy is us") some "scientific" credentials. They are misinforming their readers about experiments conducted by psychologists Philip Zimbardo at Stanford and Stanley Milgram at Yale, which they claim prove Pogo right. A typical example is U.S. News & World Report's article on Abu Grahib, "Sources of Sadism" [May 24, 2004] which informs its readers:


"While many theories have been advanced about the forces that tragically came together at Abu Ghraib--inadequate training, overzealous intelligence gathering, failure of leadership--none can adequately account for the hardening of heart necessary for such sadism. So the question is: Are there particular conditions in Iraq today that might shed light on why these soldiers committed these unconscionable acts?

"The usual points of reference in psychology are two classic studies that attempted to explore the capacity for evil residing in "normal" people. In 1971, Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo created a simulated prison and randomly assigned students to be either guards or prisoners. With astonishing speed, the "guards" indulged in forms of torture and humiliation not unlike those horrifying us today. This followed on earlier experiments by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram on obedience to authority. Milgram recruited volunteers to participate in what he described as a study on learning. An actor sat in a chair that students believed was wired with electricity. Each time this actor would give an incorrect answer, the students would be directed by Milgram to deliver a larger shock. As the subject in the electric chair seemed to suffer more and more, 2 out of 3 of the unwitting students administered shocks that would have been lethal in real life.

"Every soldier? These experiments demonstrate that Everyman is a potential torturer."

Zimbardo's "Stanford Prison Experiment"

Zimbardo conducted his "Stanford prison experiment" in 1971. On close inspection, the experiment shows that the people who design and run a prison, not any innate proclivity towards sadism in ordinary people who may be hired as guards, determine whether prisoners will be abused. But the news media spin this experiment to make the opposite point. The only thing they typically tell their readers about the experiment is that ordinary Stanford students were asked to assume the roles of guards and prisoners and then the guards, on their own, became evil and sadistic, showing how bad human nature really is. However, if one goes to the web site documenting this experiment [], and if one studies the actual results in its 42 slides, one learns that this was a fatally flawed and biased experiment.

One learns first that, while the students did indeed volunteer to be in the experiment, those assigned to be "prisoners" did not know, when the experiment commenced, that they were in the experiment that they had volunteered for weeks previously; they truly believed they were prisoners of the local police department for reasons completely unrelated to a psychology experiment. As Zimbardo relates,


"On a quiet Sunday morning in August, a Palo Alto, California, police car swept through the town picking up college students as part of a mass arrest for violation of Penal Codes 211, Armed Robbery, and Burglary, a 459 PC. The suspect was picked up at his home, charged, warned of his legal rights, spread-eagled against the police car, searched, and handcuffed -- often as surprised and curious neighbors looked on....The suspect was then taken to a holding cell where he was left blindfolded to ponder his fate and wonder what he had done to get himself into this mess."

Zimbardo created a simulated prison that appeared very real to the prisoners, including a "small closet which became 'The Hole,' or solitary confinement. It was dark and very confining, about two feet wide and two feet deep, but tall enough that a 'bad prisoner' could stand up." The student "guards" did not design the prison routine -- Zimbardo did. "Each prisoner was systematically searched and stripped naked...A degradation procedure was designed in part to humiliate prisoners...On each prisoner's right ankle was a heavy chain, bolted on and worn at all times...Even when prisoners were asleep, they could not escape the atmosphere of oppression. When a prisoner turned over, the chain would hit his other foot, waking him up and reminding him that he was still in prison, unable to escape even in his dreams."

The experiment purports to study how normal people will behave if they are given responsibility for guarding prisoners, but in fact the experimental results were predetermined by the experimenters' prior beliefs about how guards must behave. For example, on slide # 26, we read what some individuals in the experiment recalled about their behavior during it, when there was a rumor of an immanent escape attempt: "Then we formulated a second plan. The plan was to dismantle our jail after the visitors left, call in more guards, chain the prisoners together, put bags over their heads, and transport them to a fifth floor storage room until after the anticipated break in." The individuals who formulated this plan were not, as one might expect, the student/guard experimental subjects; they were the experimenters in charge of running the experiment, including Professor Zimbardo himself. Zimbardo and the others who conducted the experiment designed it in such a manner that the "prisoners" were genuinely humiliated and terrified and unaware that they were even subjects in an experiment, and genuinely convinced that they needed to make a real escape from real captors. When rumors of such an escape circulated, Zimbardo completely forgot that he was running an experiment and assumed the role of a prison superintendent who had to prevent the escape at all costs.

If Zimbardo had stood aside and let the "guards" do as they wished, he would have run the risk that a) they might have decided not to use deliberate humiliation and b) they might have decided to let the "prisoners" escape rather than use extremely harsh measures to prevent them from escaping. He would have run the risk that the prison experiment would demonstrate that people, if left to their own devices, may remain quite decent even if they are assigned the role of a prison guard. Instead, Zimbardo interjected his own views (that the "prisoners" had to be humiliated and that inhumane methods would be used to prevent an escape) into the experimental outcome, thereby completely biasing the results towards his preconceived notions about human nature.

In slide # 27, Zimbardo acknowledges the serious flaw in the study, asking, "Also, what should have been done to minimize the effects of experimenter bias on the outcome of the study? What were the dangers of the principal investigator assuming the role of prison superintendent?" Even with Zimbardo intervening to insist that the "guards" do whatever it took to control the "prisoners," and even though the "guards" must have picked up on the fact that they were part of an important scientific experiment to show how brutally real guards behave, Zimbardo reports that only one third of the guards behaved badly: "There were three types of guards. First, there were tough but fair guards who followed prison rules. Second, there were 'good guys' who did little favors for the prisoners and never punished them. And finally, about a third of the guards were hostile, arbitrary, and inventive in their forms of prisoner humiliation." [slide #33]


The Milgram "Obedience to Authority" Experiment, Ordering People to Administer Electric Shocks

The second experiment getting a lot of attention these days to explain Abu Ghraib is the Stanley Milgram study of obedience to authority conducted at Yale from 1960 to 1963 which, like Zimbardo's prison experiment, is also cited by the U.S. News and World Report article above and similar articles appearing after Abu Grahib. The most information that we learn about this experiment from these mass media accounts is that subjects were told by authority figures to give painful shocks to other human beings, and that they did so, supposedly proving that ordinary people follow authority blindly, no matter how cruel the orders from above.

Here's what the media don't tell us about the experiment. Subjects were made to believe that they were helping investigators study the relation between learning and punishment. Authority figures told the subject to administer electrical shocks of increasing voltages to learners when they answered a question wrongly. The authority also told subjects that, "Although the shocks can be extremely painful, they cause no permanent tissue damage." [1] (Note that the U.S. News & World Report article misleadingly claims, "students administered shocks that would have been lethal in real life" and thereby falsely implied that the students believed that the shocks could be lethal.) Many subjects did indeed administer the shocks, even when the learners (actors, actually) appeared to evince pain. The experiment involved varying many factors to pinpoint exactly what influences people's obedience or lack of obedience to authority.


What the study actually demonstrated, in Milgram's own words, was that


"Ideological justification is vital in obtaining willing [his emphasis] obedience, for it permits the person to see his behavior as serving a desirable end. Only when viewed in this light, is compliance easily exacted...The experiment is presented to our subjects in a way that stresses its positive human values: increase of knowledge about learning and memory processes. These ends are consistent with generally held cultural values. Obedience is merely instrumental to the attainment of these ends." [2]


Thus the experiment that is so often cited to show that people obey authority blindly actually shows the opposite -- that they first judge the moral legitimacy of authority to decide whether or not willingly to obey it.


Examined closely, neither of these famous psychology experiments leads to the Pogo conclusion that ordinary people will inflict pain on others if only given the chance, or will follow authority blindly, regardless of their opinion about the morality of the orders.


The Pogo explanation is intended to demoralize good people who want to stop the war and change the world. It says that we cannot realistically expect a movement for a better world to arise from ordinary Americans because the enemy is us -- our corrupt human nature. According to this view, we could replace our leaders with different ones or even make a revolution, but it wouldn't make any difference, because the evil that lurks within the hearts of men will manifest itself in acts like the Abu Ghraib torture nonetheless. Just like the old idea that royalty ruled by divine will and that feudal inequality was God's will, the Pogo explanation of events serves to justify the status quo by arguing that it cannot be improved. No wonder the Pogo explanation is so beloved by pro-establishment pundits.




1.Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, Harper & Row, 1974, paperback, pg. 19


2. Milgram, pp. 142, 176

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