The Stanford Prison Experiment became the subject of numerous books and documentaries, a feature film and the name of at least one punk band. In the last decade, after the revelations of abuses committed by U.S. military and intelligence personnel at prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan, the SPE provided lessons in how good people placed in adverse conditions can act barbarically.
The study has always been controversial, not only because some of the “prisoners” experienced breakdowns but because questions linger about just how scientific the enterprise was.
Listen, for example, to Dave Eshelman, one of the more sadistic guards, who says he drew on his background as an actor to play the part of a cruel warden. He rejects the idea that his cruelty was anything more than an act.
That the guards followed Eshelman’s lead unquestioningly is certainly notable, but that there was a conscious play-actor was new to me.
John Mark, one of the prisoners, says he was stoned throughout the experiment, and he expresses explicit doubts about its validity: (…)
“I don’t think the actual events match up with the bold headline. I never did, and I haven’t changed my opinion.“